Inside the Capitol

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

7-31 National Christmas Tree

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- New Mexico has the honor of providing "the nation's holiday tree" again this year. Judging from the past, it's likely to be a pretty big deal.
The U.S. Capitol landscape architect was in town last week conferring with U.S. Forest Service personnel about locating the perfect tree in the Santa Fe National Forest. It's location will remain a secret "for security reasons" until November, when it will be cut and hauled out.
The tree will then make publicity stops in many communities between here and Washington, D.C., where it will be placed in a five-foot hole on the spacious west lawn of the Capitol Building.
Between now and then, New Mexicans will be urged to make decorations for the tree. First Lady Barbara Richardson is heading the effort. She says she wants 3,000 decorations. The Forest Service predicts it will be 5,000.
The last time New Mexico provided the tree, 14 years ago, we claimed to have made over 10,000 ornaments. Pitching in were school children and senior centers around the state, along with a number of Taos artists.
Why Taos artists? The 1991 tree was from the Carson National Forest, so Taos really got into the celebration. Taosenos decided that a cut tree would not do. It had to be live. And thus began a story of many headaches, pains in the neck and pains in other locations.
First came the news from the Forest Service that it could spend no money on the project. This would be a gift to the nation from the people of New Mexico.
The 30-ton root ball makes a tree considerably more difficult to harvest and transport. A Houston firm experienced in transplanting and transporting large trees volunteered to help.
Being experts in the business, the firm's advice was that a truck ride from here to Washington would make the tree's survival unlikely. About the only solution would be to put it on a truck in the forest and haul it to a nearby airport that could handle one of the Air Force's huge C5A cargo planes that would haul both the truck and tree.
New Mexico's congressional delegation got busy on that assignment and discovered that although it might have been possible before, media revelations that White House Chief of Staff John Sununu was catching military aircraft to see his dentist back home, had made the Air Force cautious.
The Air Force said it might be able to arrange transportation if one of its big cargo planes were on a training mission, or if one happened to be in the area at the right time and had other cargo it needed to send to Washington.
But there was anther problem. The Capitol's Christmas tree is not the nation's only Christmas tree. Excuse me, I said Christmas and I know I shouldn't have.
The White House also has an official tree, both outdoors and indoors. And then there's that big one at Rockefeller Center that receives about 90 percent of the media attention because it is right there where their headquarters are.
The Republican White House wasn't too interested in asking one of its federal agencies, such as the Air Force or the Forest Service, to bend the rules for a Democrat-controlled Congress. So Taos was told it was on its own.
For $15,000, we were told, the Air Force could do the job. In many states, that would be pocket change for any number of large industries. But with our largest industry being a national laboratory, we were out of luck. There was an offer of $5,000 to buy the gas, but the Air Force wasn't interested.
Congress does control the budgets of federal agencies, but members of Congress aren't especially interested in helping out their colleagues with such a problem, because they compete for the honor of their states providing the national tree.
The saga of the Taos Tree will continue.
MON, 7-31-05

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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