As the ground froze across national forests in the Pacific Northwest this fall, timber operations picked up. But not all tree harvesters headed into the woods with chain saws or logging trucks.

In Washington and Oregon, legions of workers marched through the woods with pruning clippers fixed atop long telescoping poles to harvest boughs for Christmas decorations. The federal government's share of this multimillion-dollar industry in the two states alone was more than half a million dollars during fiscal 2002, with national forests in Washington raking in $384,143 for 4,719 tons of boughs, and Oregon reaping $212,286 for more than 13,000 tons.

The process begins at the district level when U.S. Forest Service silviculturists designate areas with plentiful supplies of trees ready to be trimmed. "Stands can vary in size, from 40 acres to more than 300 acres," said Sue Richards, specialized forest products coordinator on the Clackamas River District near Portland.

After completing the required environmental assessment, the federal forest districts advertise the sales in August and contractors submit sealed bids at auction. Bid prices are based on the quality of the boughs, giving the government leeway on what is an acceptable offer.

"We can appraise them for higher than our minimum cost," said Frank Durand, head of region 3 specialized forest products program. "Also, the harvester may bid them up to a higher price." Harvesters are allowed to cut 50 percent of the limbs from a tree's crown.

The ideal tree stands 15 to 25 feet high, although some reach 50 feet. By removing what can become "extra fuel," pruning helps reduce the danger of severe fire. On some species, such as western white pine, the pruning also reduces the spread of diseases, such as blister rust.

The tree of choice for Northwest harvesters is the Noble fir, with its evergreen fragrance and short needles. Other targeted species include Douglas fir, western red cedar, Pacific silver fir and western white pine.

Although there are no official industry figures, Larry Teufel, owner of Teufel Holly Farms Inc. here, described the Christmas wreath business as a multimillion-dollar operation that employs thousands of workers nationwide. Teufel's crews use about 2 million pounds of Noble fir boughs along with the farm's own holly to create Christmas decorations.

This fall, Teufel Holly Farms shipped 700 feet of 8-inch diameter garlands and 150 large diameter wreaths to the White House, which also buys garlands and wreaths from other businesses.

"We've sold wreaths and garlands to the White House for the last nine years," Teufel said.

Volunteers Mike Bickley, left, David Padua and Samantha Rutledge take their boughs at the White House last year, decorating the Grand Staircase that leads from Grand Foyer to the president's residence.