Smoke from wildfires in California, Oregon and parts of Utah settled into the Vallecito Valley in southwest Colorado in early September 2020.(Jeremy Wade Shockley, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree, a 55-foot-tall Engelmann spruce, was cut Nov. 5 on national forest land near Montrose and is being trucked across the country to Washington, D.C., where it will be set up and decorated as the nation’s Christmas tree.

I saw the Capitol Christmas Tree on U.S. 50 the other day as I drove home after getting new snow tires. The big tree was loaded onto a long trailer pulled by a huge semi truck and flanked by a parade of motorcycles and sheriff’s vehicles and local police cars flashing red and blue. 

The parade passed through little and big towns in Colorado, including my little town of Paonia, so people could admire the tree before it heads east. 

Local folks have been making ornaments to festoon the tree — 10,000 handmade ornaments that represent our state. Sewing clubs and crafters have sewn and embroidered tree skirts and created hand-made decorations that showcase our agriculture, wildlife, history, and recreation. Think stuffed Smokey Bears and crocheted hemp plants, an elk antler sculpture and shiny ceramic pigs.

It’s nice for Colorado forests to get recognized. We know we have the most beautiful forests, the biggest trees, the greenest glades, in all the land; it’s great to share them with the rest of the country. No place is more beautiful than Colorado.

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But Colorado’s forests are dying. Have you noticed? The state is in what weather experts call a “severe drought.” You can see the results in the dead and dying aspens all over the state, especially on south-facing mountainsides. 

The spruce are dead and dying, too, all over Colorado. You can see dead hillsides on Slumgullion Pass and in the Uncompahgre Wilderness. Thousands of formerly green mountain slopes in Rocky Mountain National Park and in the San Juan Mountains are rusty brown, or burned and scarred. 

The Capitol Christmas Tree begins its journey from Colorado to Washington, D.C. (Handout)

Over 650,000 acres burned this summer and fall in Colorado. 2020 is our worst fire year ever, by far.

This week, as I drove up onto Grand Mesa for the season’s first cross-country skiing on fresh, beautiful snow, once again I noticed the dead aspen groves — bigger every year, bigger again this year — on the south-facing slopes of that huge mountain. 

You know it, too, if you live in Colorado. You’ve seen fire in places that never burned before. You may have seen the dead aspen stands at your favorite campsite, in the Flat Tops and the Gore Range. Your classic hunting grounds aren’t the same. You’ll see vast acreage of rust-brown spruce lining the hillsides if you drive over Vail Pass or Douglas Pass.

The Colorado forests in our minds — the densely green, lush, rolling carpets of spruce/fir and aspen, dotted with rich wildflower meadows and twinkling with lakes and creeks — these forests live on in our minds, not in the mountains. The trees on Colorado forests are crispy dry, tinder dry, dying, dead in the millions, scorched and destroyed, awaiting the next fire. 

The climate isn’t just changing, it’s changed. The evidence is right here in our backyards.

Like just about everybody, I love Christmas trees, the rich green smell of a fresh-cut tree, and the fun of decorating its branches with glittering lights and shiny baubles, opening up the box of decorations and recognizing the special gifts, the handmade trinkets, that we see once a year. 

I love gatherings of people around the tree. A Christmas tree brings warmth and ceremony to dark midwinter. There’s nothing cozier than seeing bright Christmas lights shining from a neighbor’s window or twinkling on an outside tree.

I wish seeing the Capitol Christmas Tree didn’t make me think about Colorado’s dying forests; I wish the forests weren’t dying. I wish I could cheer with simple pride and celebration for the beautiful Engelmann spruce sent as our gift to the nation, without fretting about what’s really going on in the national forests. 

I wish climate change wasn’t occurring; or, since it undeniably is, that we as global citizens were united in turning it around. I wish the high country was as lush and healthy and green as when I first saw it, over 30 years ago. 

But wishing doesn’t make it so, even at Christmas.

Jane McGarry is a writer and bookseller with a big garden in Paonia.

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Special to The Colorado Sun