ORLANDO, Fla. – Finding the perfect Christmas tree may be difficult this year. Fewer mature live trees and shipping disruptions for artificial trees means fewer trees in tree tents -- and higher prices.
But there are plenty of trees to be had in Florida -- in the Ocala National Forest. And for $10, you can cut down your own tree.
The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture allows people to go into federal forests to cut down sand pine trees in two designated areas. One is off State Road 19 in Umatilla, while the other is off Highway 40 in Silver Springs.
The Christmas Tree Permit Program serves a special purpose, not just helping people get cheap Christmas trees. Visitors are helping to thin dense tree stands, opening the area for wildlife and helping the remaining trees grow bigger.
The forest ranger stations in those areas are closed to the public. Permits can be purchased online at Recreation.gov for $10. You can purchase permits for up to five trees. If you have a fourth-grader and an Every Kid Outdoors pass, you can cut down a tree for free. Tree cutting is available now through Christmas Day.
There are some things to know before you go to the forest.
- With the forest ranger stations closed to the public, you are pretty much on your own out there. Be sure to gas up your vehicle, bring a map and a copy of your permit.
- You’ll be driving on dirt roads so make sure your vehicle can handle it.
- Wear comfortable clothes and closed-toed shoes. Be prepared to get dirty.
- Cell service may be spotty or unavailable. Make sure someone knows where you are.
- You’ll need to bring your own tools to cut your tree -- a saw, gloves to protect your hands, a tarp, canvas fabric or something else for your tree to lay on in the car. If you are securing it to the top of your vehicle, that tarp will be used to cover your tree and protect it from wind damage. Bring ropes or straps, too.
- You’re cutting a tree from a forest. You may not find that gorgeous showroom tree you want.
- The USDA asks that you cut from a densely-forested area so remaining trees have more space to grow.
- Inspect the tree well for any critters. Before you bring that tree into your home, be sure to shake it well to get rid of any insects or insect eggs that might be on it.
Christmas tree-area maps, driving directions and ranger station contact information can be found on the Recreation.gov website.
The forest isn’t the only place to get a Florida-grown Christmas tree. Santa’s Christmas Tree Forest is a popular tree farm in Eustis. Visitors can cut their own trees or buy pre-cut ones. There are other activities at the farm, including a petting zoo and a zip line.
Here’s a link to other Christmas tree businesses, but be sure to call before going to ensure they’re still open.