- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 31, 2012

National Park Service officials faced a planting predicament: Leave the soon-to-be National Christmas Tree in its shipping crate to ride out superstorm Sandy, or plant the 30-foot Colorado blue spruce and risk having it blow over like its predecessor last year.

On Oct. 26, less than 72 hours before the storm arrived, the tree was hoisted by the same crane that pulled it from its original home in northwest Virginia and lowered into the ground on the Ellipse.

It’s no secret the newest addition to the Ellipse withstood this week’s extreme weather — on Wednesday it stood soaking up the sun a few hundred yards south of the White House — but making sure the National Park Service officials’ decision was the right one took some fast action, dedication and a sturdy brace system.

“We felt that was the best option: To get it here as quickly as possible and get it in the ground and stabilized,” said John Stanwich, the Park Service’s deputy liaison to the White House. “We knew we would have that system in place, and as much as possible, keeping in mind the safety of the staff, we would do our very best to monitor it as much as possible during the storm. Obviously we’re very happy it’s doing very well.”

The Colorado spruce chosen this year is the same kind of tree that stood for more than 30 years on the Ellipse before it was snapped in half by a strong windstorm in February 2011.

Earlier this year, the National Christmas Tree planted to replace the long-standing tree succumbed to “transplant shock.”

Mr. Stanwich said “some trees do better than others” when it comes to moving, even though the Park Service does its best to ensure a smooth journey and transition of the tree to its new home.

When a tree is chosen, Park Service arborists and contracted tree experts look at the overall health of the tree, Mr. Stanwich said, and they try to find a tree that comes from an area with similar weather and temperatures to that of the District.

The work to get this newest Christmas tree from its original location in northwest Virginia to President’s Park in the District began Oct. 5.

Throughout the month, tree experts worked to excavate the tree, the slow task of taking it out of the ground without damaging the roots.

“It’s done methodically, so we didn’t do it any injury,” Mr. Stanwich said. “It’s a very large root system, but doesn’t radiate. It’s pretty near to the base of the tree.”

Last week, the tree was finally removed from the dirt, and its roots encased in a box. Then came the forecast for a hurricane-fueled superstorm.

“It’s best to keep it vertical as much as possible,” Mr. Stanwich said, which begged the question of where the tree would be safest standing against 60 mph winds.

“The concern was to leave it growing in the box or bring it here to thesite,” Mr. Stanwich said. “The idea was that it would be much better and much more stable having it in the bracing system in place than leaving it where it was.”

At the tree’s designated spot on the Ellipse grounds, large wooden posts were buried “very deep into the ground,” Mr. Stanwich said, and cable wires were attached from the posts to the trunk of the tree and around its base.

The Park Service has used a brace on past trees, Mr. Stanwich said. The last tree used a brace but it was slightly different from the current system because it was a larger tree.

“We came out several times throughout the storm to make sure the bracing system was properly set up,” Mr. Stanwich said.

Though it needed some minor adjustments as the storm progressed, the tree “did make it. We’re certainly excited. It looks really beautiful.”

The tree is scheduled to be lit Dec. 6 in front of thousands of people who won tickets in the annual tree lighting lottery.

This is the 90th anniversary of the lighting, which began in 1923, when President Calvin Coolidge lit a “Community Christmas Tree.”