Alaska's first Capitol Christmas Tree nears DC

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2015 has been a year of firsts for the United States Capitol Christmas Tree.

Standing tall at 74 feet and weighing 7,500 pounds, the 2015 U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree will be the first lit up by new House Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanRyan: Recession 'around the corner' without tax reform Michigan Dems highlight Flint with unanimous opposition to CR Congress departs for recess until after Election Day MORE (R-Wis.). It is also the first Lutz spruce to be the centerpiece of the annual Christmas display on the Capitol’s West Lawn.

Most notably, this year’s tree, which stood in Chugach National Forest in southern Alaska for 90 years, is the first of its kind to come from outside the lower 48 states.

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The lesser-known cousin of the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse, the Capitol Tree traces its roots to 1964, when then-House Speaker John McCormack (D-Mass.) proposed that a Christmas tree be planted on the Capitol Grounds. The tree became a staple of the season in 1970, when the U.S. Forest Service took over the tradition.

With the help of the Architect of the Capitol, the Forest Service scouts for trees more than a year in advance of the annual lighting ceremony, in search of one that meets its stringent selection criteria. The tree must appear healthy from all angles and be impeccably conical in shape. Its ideal height range is 60-85 feet, a significant upgrade from the original 1964 tree, at just 24 feet tall.

Preparations started early to ensure the tree’s smooth arrival. On January 2, just one day after it pulled the plug on the 88-foot Minnesotan white spruce from 2014, the Forest Service announced that Chugach would bear the 2015 tree. Superintendent of the Capitol Grounds Ted Bechtol later selected the perfect tree from the forest.

On Oct. 27 — 10 months after the announcement was made — the tree was finally cut down, kicking off its journey to the nation’s capital.

As the first of its kind from outside the continental United States, this year’s Capitol Christmas Tree is also the first to travel by ship, spending three days at sea to reach Seattle from Anchorage.

“The People’s Tree” has made formal appearances in about a dozen communities along its journey to D.C.

Highlights include a Halloween celebration in downtown Anchorage and a Veterans Day parade in Rapid City, S.D. Fans are able to monitor the tree’s progression across the U.S. via trackthetree.com, an online interactive map that provides updates of the tree’s whereabouts in real time.

Transporting a four-ton tree across 4,000 miles comes with a hefty price tag.

Mona Spargo, a spokeswoman for Chugach National Forest, explained that the project is largely financed with donations coordinated by Choose Outdoors, a nonprofit dedicated to engaging the public in outdoor activities.

Corporate sponsors also contributed to events that helped generate local excitement for the tree’s trip. As the 2015 Capitol Christmas Tree’s home state, Alaska is responsible for decorating the tree, so Chugach National Forest organized a Christmas in July event over the summer for locals to create decorations.

Everyone, from schoolchildren to professional artists, was invited to participate; submissions were open entry, Spargo noted.

“I’m amazed at how communities really come out to support this,” she said.

Thanks to their involvement, lawmakers and visitors will see 2,000 handcrafted tree ornaments inspired by Alaskan holiday spirit, with an additional 2,000 ornaments distributed throughout D.C. to office Christmas trees. Alaskan residents also sent along elaborate, hand-stitched tree skirts.

Before reaching Washington, the tree makes its final pit stop on Wednesday at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, the same base where Pope Francis touched down on his first visit to the United States in September.

On Friday, the tree will finally arrive in D.C. bright and early at 4 a.m., in a bid to avoid traffic, accompanied by a team from Chugach to help decorate the Capitol’s West Lawn.

In an email to The Hill, Architect of the Capitol spokeswoman Laura Condeluci explained that turnout for the lighting ceremony varies with the weather.

“It ranges anywhere from a couple of hundred people in cold, drizzly weather to a couple of thousand people when it’s a pleasant December day,” said Condeluci. “But either way, the folks who come seem to be filled with holiday cheer, and they enjoy the countdown and watching the tree light up.”

Despite the long trek from America’s Last Frontier to the nation’s capital, Spargo anticipates that a sizeable number of Alaskan residents are traveling to Washington to catch a glimpse of their tree.

Fifth-grader Anna DeVolld of Soldotna, Alaska, will be an honorary guest at the lighting ceremony alongside Speaker Ryan. She was one of hundreds of Alaskan elementary school students to submit essays on the significance of an Alaskan Capitol Christmas Tree to Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa MurkowskiOvernight Energy: Obama integrates climate change into national security planning GOP pressures Kerry on Russia's use of Iranian airbase Overnight Energy: Lawmakers kick off energy bill talks MORE (R-Alaska). As the author of the winning essay, DeVolld said, “Christmas trees are special because they are a symbol of Alaskan pride.”