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Official yule tree near the Capitol?

This will be Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s first Christmas in office, and he'd like the state to be able to celebrate the holiday season with an official Christmas tree at the Capitol complex.

He may get his wish.

A plan is in the works to decorate a 25-foot spruce on the east side of the complex, near an exit to a parking lot, so it can stand in as the state Christmas tree during the ongoing renovation of the Capitol.

"It's kind of a makeshift thing," admitted David Hart, executive director of the Capitol Preservation Board overseeing the $200 million project that isn't scheduled to be finished until 2008.

But it will be better than last year, when there was no Christmas tree at the Capitol. Traditionally, a giant Christmas tree hung with ornaments and lights has filled the Capitol rotunda each December.

Closing the Capitol for construction in mid-2004, though, meant an

end to that tradition. Even after the work is done, the big trees won't be allowed back inside because of fire safety concerns.

When the Capitol does reopen, the state Christmas tree will still likely be a fresh-cut specimen donated by a Utahn. Instead of going inside the stately building, however, it will have a permanent "stand" dug near the Capitol's grand front staircase.

Hart said he's been thinking since last Christmas about what to do in the meantime to mark the holiday. The tree that's been identified is one that was transplanted from the construction area and — most importantly — is near some electrical outlets.

"We have enough outlets out there, we can light the thing up," Hart said.

Yet to be decided is whether ornaments will be added, too.

"We need to talk about the potential for theft," he said.

The tree is about the only choice the state has right now. The lobbies of the two new office buildings at the complex that house the governor and the Legislature are just too small to accommodate Christmas trees.

And the outdoor plaza behind the Capitol sits on an underground parking structure and can't support the weight of a big tree — like the 38-foot blue spruce that, in 2003, was the last state Christmas tree to grace the Capitol.

The decision to designate the spruce as a temporary state tree still needs a nod from the governor. That shouldn't be a problem, since Huntsman has said he's anxious to see a state Christmas tree.

"We can do something like they have in Washington, D.C., where I've spent some years," Huntsman, a former U.S. ambassador to Singapore and trade representative, said in a recent interview.

"They have a great tree — outside. It's festooned with lights and great decorations and people love to go by it. It really is a nice symbol of the season," he said. "Maybe we can have an outdoor tree here that reflects the spirit of our state."

The plan means Huntsman won't have to settle for just having a Christmas tree at the Governor's Mansion. He's said it will be an artificial tree, even though a real tree is permissible in state buildings if certain safety precautions are taken, like applying flame retardant.

The three-story mansion was severely damaged in 1993 when a faulty electrical connection ignited a freshly cut, 25-foot Christmas tree that stood in the building's rotunda. Since then, most state buildings have opted for fake trees.

"Over the past several years, it's pretty rare that anyone wants to bring a live tree in," said Bruce Whittington, the assistant director of the state Division of Facilities Construction and Management. "We highly recommend artificial."


E-mail: lisa@desnews.com