Finding & Harvesting Your Own Christmas Tree

For many families in the Rockies, cutting their own Christmas tree is as much a part of the holiday season as hot cocoa and brightly-wrapped presents. Where the rest of the nation must make do with trees cut in October and hauled hundreds or even thousands of miles to their destination (many even dyed artificially “greener”), here on the eastern front of the Absaroka-Beartooth mountain range, we are blessed with thousands of acres of potential Christmas trees, just waiting for us.

Not only are locally harvested Christmas trees great for the pocketbook, they are actually good for the environment. Smaller trees act as “fuel ladders” that help forest fires grow, and they also block sunlight that other shrubs, vines and plants need. Judicious harvesting benefits the forest.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the US Forest Service (USFS) issue permits for the cutting of Christmas trees for only $5/tree with a limit of 3 per family. New this year, permits are now available at retail locations in Billings and Red Lodge.

Those with a permit may cut a Christmas tree anywhere on the Custer or Gallatin National Forest except in campgrounds, trailheads, designated wilderness areas, developed recreation sites, posted timber sale units, recently planted locations and administrative sites. Maps, forest road access updates, and tree species identification guides are available at ranger offices as well as the designated retail locations listed below.

Gear Needed: 

Small gas- or battery-powered chainsaw (or)

Sharp handsaw or axe


Straps or rope to attach tree to car or secure in truck bed

Tarp to cover the tree

Helpful Hints:

Remember the context size of your living room. That perfect tree may end up being the correct height, but they often have a greater spread than trees grown in tight tree-farm quarters. Measure your tree area at home before you head for the woods, and cut


Freshly harvested trees may have temperature shock if you bring it straight indoors. Also, it takes only about 3 hours for tree sap to seal off a cut; so slice off an extra inch or so beyond the felling cut before standing the tree up in a bucket of water in an unheated garage for a few hours before bringing it inside, if possible.

Water, water, water! The tree will thirstily gulp water as it basically comes out of dormancy in your home, so make it a daily habit (or assign it to a child) to top off the tree. If it drinks itself dry, it will reseal within 3 hours, and will not open back up without being recut.

General guidelines for cutting a tree include the following:

  • No tree cutting is allowed within 100 feet of any stream, lake, or wetland.
  • Only trees 12 feet tall or less may be cut.
  • Cut your tree as close to the ground as possible and below the lowest live limb. A remaining stump height of 6 inches or less is ideal.
  • After cutting your tree, attach the purchased permit to a lower limb near the trunk for transporting home.
  • "Topping" trees, or cutting the top off trees, deforms any future growth and leaves a visual eyesore. Take the entire tree or choose another one.
  • Trees help protect watersheds, provide habitat for wildlife, and contribute to beautiful scenery. Keep these values in mind when selecting a tree.

Permit Locations:

Custer National Forest, Forest Supervisor’s Office

1310 Main Street

Billings, MT 59105

Phone: 255-1400

Hours: 8:00AM – 4:30PM Mon-Fri

NOTE: Christmas tree permits will be available November 10-November 28 at the current Main Street office (1310 Main Street, Billings). Christmas tree sales will continue again starting December 1 at the new Forest Service office co-located with the Bureau of Land Management at 5001 Southgate Drive, Billings, MT

Beartooth Ranger District 

6811 Hwy 212

Red Lodge, MT 59068

Phone: 446-2103

Hours: 8AM – 4:30PM Mon-Fri, also Saturdays between November 24 and Dec 15 from 9AM – 1PM

Red Lodge True Value

1 N. Oakes Avenue

Red Lodge, MT

Hours: 8AM -9PM Mon-Sat, 9AM-5PM Sun

King’s Ace Hardware

1551 Zimmerman Trail (west end)

Billings, MT

Hours: 8AM-8PM Mon-Fri, 8AM-7PM Sat, 9AM-6PM Sun

Heights Ace Hardware

1547 Main Street

Billings, MT

Hours: 8AM-8PM Mon-Fri, 8AM-7PM Sat, 9AM-6PM Sun


4550 King Avenue East

Billings, MT

Hours: 9AM-9PM Mon-Sat, 10AM-6PM Sun