CONWAY, N.H. -- A hiker's paradise or a giant Christmas tree farm?
The White Mountain National Forest offers a bit of both this holiday season. Those willing to hike into the woods have 796,000 acres from which to pick a tree. The cost for a permit from the US Forest Service is $5.
''I think a lot of people just love being in the forest," said Susan Spruce Eland, conservation and visitor education specialist for the US Forest Service in Conway. ''And this way, you have a reason to go out there.
''If you go to a tree farm or by the side of the road, it's easy," she said, ''but it's so much fun to be out in the forest getting your own tree."
Only one tree per family is allowed, and certain shortcuts are forbidden. Tree hunters must use hand tools to cut down their trees. No trees can be cut within 100 feet of a highway or near campgrounds, picnic areas, or experimental forests.
This is the only time of year the forest service allows public cutting of trees. Eland said that in recent years, about 400 to 500 permits have been sold.
A list of rules is provided along with the permit, which can be bought at any district office, including ones in Conway, Gorham, Plymouth, Bethlehem, and Bethel, Maine.
''Keep in mind that a wild tree may not have the perfect appearance of a commercial tree," said Colleen Mainville, public affairs officer at the White Mountain National Forest headquarters in Laconia. ''Be prepared to do some real searching. Somewhere out there is your ideal Christmas tree."
Permit holders can cut down larger trees and harvest just the tops to take home, but the Forest Service asks that any stumps left behind be no more than 10 inches high.
Though it may seem like a waste to cut a 15-foot tree for the top 6 feet, Eland said the process is good for the forest ecology.
''It helps to clear things out, so other trees will have an opportunity to get more light," she said.
Permits are also available to cut firewood. The Forest Service allows people to take up to five cords of wood a year from the White Mountain National Forest for personal use. A permit costs $10, and rangers will offer suggestion about where to find wood in storm-damaged areas or where timber has been removed.