Meet Colorado’s Own ‘Mr. Christmas Tree’

Each year, the Colorado State Forest Service – a service and outreach agency of the Warner College of Natural Resources – cuts the State Capitol Holiday Tree and smaller trees destined for the Colorado State University campus. One forester in particular plays an especially active role, from cutting the trees to personally delivering the two-and-a-half story giants to Denver. Meet Colorado’s own “Mr. Christmas Tree,” Mike Hughes.

Colorado capitol tree cutting 2015
Mike Hughes, Colorado State Forest Service, surveys a tree that will end up in the state capitol.

Hughes, assistant district forester with the CSFS Fort Collins District, has been with the agency for 25 years. He brought early experience from forestry jobs in New Mexico, Idaho and Missouri, and holds a master’s in forest products from the University of Idaho.

He is the Tree Farm Program administrator for the state of Colorado – a designation held by only one forester in each state – and in his career has planted more than 100,000 CSFS nursery-grown seedling trees for conservation purposes, mostly as windbreaks and shelterbelts on Colorado’s northeastern plains. He also is a qualified wildland firefighter, having had roles in the High Park Fire and other major fires in northern Colorado.

Starting in the late 1990s, Hughes also became the de facto forester responsible for providing the holiday trees delivered to the state capitol, CSU and other offices each December, and for treating them to reduce fire risk by soaking each tree base in a time-honored solution that encourages water absorption (see related sidebar).

“Mike has played a key role in bringing the holidays to the state capitol and CSU each year,” said Mike Lester, state forester and director of the CSFS. “We regard him as Colorado’s own ‘Mr. Christmas Tree.’”

Gold Star Tree of Honor

This year’s State Capitol Holiday Tree, which Hughes cut and delivered, is themed the “Gold Star Tree of Honor.” The 50-year-old, 25-foot subalpine fir, harvested on State Trust Land in northern Larimer County, pays tribute to the more than 350 Colorado military service members lost since Sept. 11, 2001, as well as their families.

Colorado National Guard soldiers decorated the tree, and on Dec. 11, Gov. John Hickenlooper will dedicate the tree at a formal lighting ceremony in the capitol’s North Foyer. This is the the fifth year in a row that the capitol tree has been provided by the CSFS Collins District.

“At times it has been pretty challenging to get a large tree like the capitol tree cut and transported without significant damage to the tree,” said Boyd Lebeda, Hughes’ longtime supervisor. “Mike has had an attitude of quiet confidence in leading the project year after year.”

Other trees for CSU, families in need

 Each year, Hughes and other CSFS foresters cut not only the capitol’s tree, but also smaller trees destined for the CSU campus as part of ongoing management efforts to improve forest health. One of those trees now stands in the Administration Building just outside President Tony Frank’s office.

Christmas tree in the CSU Administration Building
The Christmas Tree from the Colorado State Forest Service in the lobby of the CSU Administration Building.

This year, Hughes also personally harvested several trees from CSU’s Borden Memorial Forest for the families of deployed military personnel per a request from the Colorado Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

Hughes, his family and other CSFS personnel have volunteered in recent years to deliver trees to families in need in the Fort Collins-Loveland area as part of a program called Gift of Green Christmas Tree. The program, managed by the nonprofit Northern Colorado Shares, allows volunteers to deliver fresh-cut holiday trees, along with donated lighting, ornaments and a stand, to families that otherwise would not have a tree. This year, the group delivered more than 200 trees on Dec. 5.

 Stories from Christmas past

 Hughes says that so many years of working to locate, harvest, transport and treat holiday trees has brought some unique experiences and fun memories. “One of the most memorable years was when I got to meet the First Lady at the Governor’s Mansion,” he said.

It was the night before Thanksgiving about 15 years ago – a year when the CSFS also had been asked to deliver several trees to the mansion. Hughes says he was invited into the kitchen, where he found First Lady Frances Owens, wife of then Gov. Bill Owens, busy cooking all by herself. She talked one-on-one with him about the trees.

“She was really very nice, and really thankful for the trees,” he said.

He also recalled how moved he was after attending a ceremony to honor Gold Star families at the State Capitol Holiday Tree lighting in 2013, and more lighthearted memories of eating hot chili in the snow, brought by a colleague, and having to wait for a logger to plow the road in to the uncut capitol tree after getting a truck stuck in two-foot snow drifts this year. He plans to continue his lead role in providing holiday trees in the years to come, as it remains a cherished part of his job.

“It’s just the spirit of it,” he said. “Seeing the smiles when I deliver the trees. I won’t ever get tired of it.”

Holiday Tree Tonic

Hughes said one of the most important safety measures for any holiday tree is making sure it never runs out of water, as well-watered trees are much less likely to cause a fire. Saw a 1-inch cookie off the tree base before you set it up, and consider this holiday tree-watering solution to increase absorption:

  • 2 gallons hot water
  • 2 cups corn syrup
  • 2 ounces liquid bleach
  • 2 pinches Epsom salts
  • ½ teaspoon borax
  • 1 teaspoon chelated iron (available at garden shops)

Mix well, then cool before filling the base. Hughes suggests keeping extra solution on hand for regular refilling, and says that if a tree ever dries out faster than expected, it should be removed from the home.