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WASHINGTON, D.C. — After calling it a “gorgeous tree,” Speaker of the House Paul Ryan — assisted by 9-year-old Brigette Harrington of Hillsboro — flipped a switch that illuminated thousands of colorful lights on the 75-foot Capitol Christmas Tree Thursday evening.

The 75-foot Noble fir — the first such tree in the program’s 48-year history — was harvested Nov. 2 from the Sweet Home Ranger District east of Cascadia.

“5-4-3-2-1, let 'er rip!,” Ryan cheered, leading more than 1,000 people in a countdown on the west side of the Capitol.

More than a year of planning, dozens of ornament- and skirt-making parties and a 3,000-mile journey through a dozen states led up to the event. This is the second time the so-called People’s Tree has come from an Oregon forest.

“This is my fourth and final time to light the tree, and each time the tree is stunning,” Ryan said.

Ryan joked with the crowd of more than 1,000 that his friend, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, had given him a primer on how to pronounce “Oregon and Willamette” before the program began.

Ryan said the ceremony “is a great time to come together. It is a season of wonder and faith.”

Ryan asked Harrington, a Hillsboro fourth-grader, to read her poem about the wonders of Oregon’s great outdoors. The poem was selected by Oregon governor Kate Brown from more than 1,200 entries.

In addition to the strings of colorful energy-saving LED lights, the tree is adorned with handmade ornaments from Oregon. Some 10,000 were needed for the Capitol Tree, plus 70 smaller trees placed in offices around the mall.

The concept of harvesting the Capitol Christmas Tree from the Willamette National Forest — specifically the Sweet Home Ranger District — was championed by Sweet Home Ranger Nikki Swanson.

“This is the most amazing thing I will do in my life,” she said. “It was absolutely incredible. Our partners, the sponsors, the city of Sweet Home and everyone in Oregon came together for this. It’s so inspiring, so wonderful. It couldn’t be more perfect.”

Swanson traveled in the convoy that accompanied the tree and said the reception in towns small and large was “amazing. People were thrilled everywhere we stopped. I would love to be able to bottle the joy associated with this tree.”

A long journey

Nearly a year ago, at a January ceremony at Sweet Home’s Sankey Park, Swanson and other U.S. Forest Service officials announced that the Capitol Christmas Tree would come from the Sweet Home Ranger District.

Local volunteers — from civic organizations in Sweet Home to people attending the Oregon State Fair — immediately began crafting the 10,000 ornaments needed for decoration.

A “tree team” of Forest Service staff members scoured the Sweet Home Ranger District for trees that might qualify. They compiled a list of 20 and narrowed it to five finalists. Members of the public were invited to nominate trees and were encouraged to visit the forest to search for special ornaments.

In August, Jim Kaufmann, the architect of the Capitol, visited Oregon and made his official selection, which was kept a secret until a Nov. 2 harvesting at a site east of Cascadia. The tree was cut and loaded onto a semitrailer and was the centerpiece of a lighted parade that capped an all-day celebration in Sweet Home on Nov. 9.

The People’s Tree traveled through Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Washington, D.C.

Sweet Home was represented at the tree lighting ceremony by Mayor Greg Mahler and councilors Susan Coleman and Dave Trask, along with City Manager Ray Towry.

“It was awesome, totally awesome,” Mahler said. “All of our elected officials have said such kind words about this beautiful tree. It has truly been an honor to be able to represent the citizens of Sweet Home and the state of Oregon.”

Linn County Commissioner Will Tucker and his wife, Lynne, turned the event into a family RV adventure. The Tuckers, their daughter Becky, her husband Jonah and Becky and Jonah's children Adrianne, Stella and Charlotte, followed the tree from Sweet Home to D.C.

Adrianne chronicled their adventures in a recurring column, “On the Trail,” for the Democrat-Herald over the last three weeks.

“It was really cool,” Adrianne said. “We were very close to the tree and seeing all of the handmade ornaments was amazing. People were very creative.”

She added that the contrast between the tree lights and the dark sky was beautiful.

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“It has been a wonderful experience that we shared as a family and seeing this come together has been amazing,” Adrianne said.

During its journey, the tree convoy was greeted warmly, from Perry, Kansas, population 900, to St. Louis, Mo., population 2.8 million.

“Oregonians do lots of things well, but what we do best is grow Christmas trees,” Sen. Ron Wyden said. “And nobody does it better than Sweet Home.”

Wyden called the city a “wonderful place for the holidays,” adding that he enjoyed participating in the tree’s grand send-off parade.

Wyden said it’s fitting that the tree’s theme is “Find Your Trail,” commemorating the 50th anniversary of the National Trail System and the 175th anniversary of the Oregon Trail.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, Oregon's junior senator, said explorers Lewis and Clark were in awe of the giant Oregon forests when they arrived in the Pacific Northwest 214 years ago.

“Our old-growth forests are an important part of our culture and economy,” he said. “Nearly 20 percent of our state is in national forests. We love those forests, their commerce and the pleasure they provide in feeding our souls.”

Merkley called the Capitol Tree, “the most beautiful People's Christmas tree in the history of the United States. It is a Noble fir that is extraordinarily symmetrical; it’s as though the Willamette National Forest said ‘let’s grow the most perfect tree ever to share with the United States of America.’”

Rep. Peter DeFazio said the tree is only 35 years old and he hopes its beauty “will inspire all of you to go out and find your own trail.”

“We grow them quickly and big in Oregon,” he said. “We have the most productive forest lands in the United States and we are always discussing how we can better manage our forests.”

The United States Navy Band provided holiday music, including “Oh, Christmas Tree.”

The Capitol Christmas Tree will be lighted daily from dusk until 11 p.m. through the holiday season.

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Contact Linn County reporter Alex Paul at 541-812-6114.

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