FRESNO, Calif. — Somewhere in the middle of a California forest stands a perfectly formed 65-foot white fir about to meet a glorious end as the U.S. Capitol Christmas tree.
Where, exactly, is top secret, though it is somewhere in the Stanislaus National Forest in the central Sierra Nevada mountains.
"It's a matter of national security," said Maria C. Benech, in all seriousness.
She is the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree Coordinator, for now at least. After the tree is safely delivered to the front of the U.S. Capitol, she'll go back to overseeing resources in the forest.
The tree is, indeed, a spectacular specimen, standing out like a verdant beauty queen amid scraggly competitors, at least in the photo the forest service provided. The shot shows only the top half of the tree and those around it to avoid identifying landmarks and keep its location guarded.
It was chosen based on shape and fullness, color and the condition of its foliage. No Charlie Brown tree would do. The Capitol needs a tree that looks cylindrical from all sides.
Earlier this year, rangers set out to find 30 potential candidates to show Ted Bechtol, supervisor of the U.S. Capitol Grounds Division. He toured the forest in July to make his selection from a group whittled to 15.
"He looked at them, then slept on it before making the final decision," Benech said.
The tree will be cut Nov. 5 and loaded on a tractor-trailer truck for a tour along a 4,500-mile route that begins with a jaunt through California's heartland, then roughly follows Interstate 40 across the U.S. Only a few days earlier, an environmental assessment report will be made public that will pinpoint the tree's precise location.
After that it will be guarded by law enforcement 24/7 to prevent both saboteurs and terrorists, Benech said.
The tradition of "The People's Tree" began in 1964, and the job of providing it rotates among national forests. This year, the Stanislaus National Forest was chosen to provide the tree, marking the fourth time the Capitol tree will come from California.
It will be decorated by 5,000 ornaments handmade by Californians. House Speaker John Boehner will light it along with a child from California on Dec. 6.
Come January, when the tree has served its purpose, it will be ground into mulch and spread across the Capitol gardens. It's not lost on Benech that a living entity will die to provide joy to so many.
"That's a pretty good way to go," Benech says. "The good news is we've got a million more of them out there. I think we'll be OK."