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QUICK STOP: CUT YOUR OWN CHRISTMAS TREE IN A NATIONAL FOREST

SHARE QUICK STOP: CUT YOUR OWN CHRISTMAS TREE IN A NATIONAL FOREST

Those Christmas trees atop cars you'll soon be seeing along the interstate won't necessarily come from a supermarket or tree lot. Nor will their happy owners necessarily have paid the fancy prices the lots and markets ask.

It's Yule tree-stalking - and cutting - time in our national forests, many of them Quick Stops off the interstate highway system. Scores of ranger stations are open for business - Christmas tree business. Generally you need only a cutting permit. Fees for Christmas trees range from zero (in some Montana national forests) to a high of $5.In West Virginia, Monongahela National Forest's Marlinton Ranger District, 40 miles north of Interstate 64 via U S. 219, offers a living forest of Christmas trees ($3 each, red spruce and white pine). For directions and a cutting permit, phone the Marlinton office: (304) 799-4334.

In Vermont, Green Mountain National Forest invites Yule tree stalkers to pick among red spruce, white pine and balsam fir ($5). You can cut your Yule tree in any of three ranger districts: at Manchester Center ((802) 362-1251/362-2307), 37 miles west of I-91 via State Routes 103 and 11; at Middlebury ((802) 388-4362), 47 miles off I-89 via State Routes 107/100/125; and at Rochester ((802) 767-4777/767-4261), 21 miles northwest of I-89 via State Routes 107 and 100. Phone ahead for tree-cutting locations and instructions.

In Wisconsin, Nicolet National Forest's Lakewood Ranger District, off I-43 some 76 miles northwest of Green Bay, lets you pick and choose among balsam fir, black and white spruce, and red and white pine. Cost: $3 per tree. For a tree permit and directions, phone the forest's Lakewood office: (715) 276-6333.

Southern Illinois' Shawnee National Forest charges $1 for mostly red cedar Yule trees. Two of its ranger districts are just off the I-Routes: at Vienna ((618) 658-2111), a mile west of I-24, and at Jonesboro ((618) 833-8576), seven miles west of I-57 via State Route 146.

In New Hampshire, White Mountain National Forest's Pemigewasset ranger district ((603) 536-1310), at Plymouth just west of I-92, lets you pick from huge stands of balsam fir for $5 a tree.

Virtually all of the West's national forests are open to Yule tree-stalking. Yule trees are free for the cutting, although a permit is required, in three of Montana's national forests: Flathead, Bitterroot and Lolo. The latter's district office ((406) 329-3750) is in Missoula just off I-90.

But some rules apply. In some national forests you're limited to trees no higher than 12 feet. Most prohibit "topping" - taking the top part of a higher tree. Most limit tree-taking to one per household. Besides the height limit, most prohibit cutting trees larger than 5 inches in diameter. Generally, you're expected to leave a stump no higher than 6 inches and to trim any limbs or branches from the stump that you do leave.

In most cases, you can apply for a tree-taking permit at any ranger station, either in person or by mail. The fee usually can be paid when you arrive at the national forest and its ranger station. There, a ranger will issue you a Yule tree-cutting permit, explain the rules, designate in what area you're permitted to cut a tree and issue you a receipt. While Christmas tree cutting in most national forests goes right up to Christmas Day, in a few areas the date for requesting a cutting permit has already passed (it was Oct. 6 for national forests in Arizona).

Most I-Route Yule tree stalkers need only a handsaw and some twine to secure your prize atop the family car. And it's probably a good idea to bring along a hedge trimmer or hatchet to trim and "dress" your tree. The trees you'll find in the national forests are natural, not manicured as on local lots. Wild trees often need some trimming for symmetry and good looks.

In Utah, trees are still available in the Evanston Ranger District and the Mountain View Ranger District in the Wasatch-Cache National Forest; Duchesne Ranger District, Roosevelt Ranger District and Vernal Ranger District in the Ashley National Forest. For information call 524-5030 or the local ranger station. Permits can be obtained from the ranger station in the area. $5 per permit.

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FOR MORE INFORMATION. For directions to the nearest national forest offering Christmas trees, write or phone your regional Forest Service Headquarters:

Eastern Region (20 Eastern and Midwestern states): Regional Forester, 633 W. Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee, Wis. 53202; (414) 297-3431.

Intermountain Region (Utah, southern Idaho, western Wyoming and Nevada): Regional Forester, Federal Building, 324 25th St., Ogden, Utah 84401; (801) 625-5183.

Northern Region (Montana, North Dakota, northern Idaho): Regional Forester, Federal Building, Missoula, Mont. 59801; (406) 329-3511.

Pacific Northwest Region (Oregon and Washington): Regional Forester, P.O. Box 3623, Portland, Ore. 97208; (503) 326-2877.

Rocky Mountain Region (Colorado, eastern and central Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas): Regional Forester, Denver Federal Center, Building 85, Denver, Colo. 80225; (303) 236-9431, or (303) 236-9435.

California Region: Regional Forester, 630 Sansome St., San Francisco, Calif. 94111; (415) 705-2874.

Southwestern Region (New Mexico and Arizona): Regional Forester, Federal Building, 517 Gold Ave. S.W., Albuquerque, N.M. 87101; (505) 842-3292.

Southern Region (13 Southern states): Regional Forester, 1720 Peachtree Road N.W., Atlanta, Ga. 30367; (404) 347-4191. No trees available. Refers Christmas tree seekers to their state forestry departments.