Holiday Special Delivery

By Ellen Powell, VDOF Conservation Education Coordinator

Early Tuesday morning, a team of foresters gathered at Claybrooke Farm near Mineral to collect a special gift – the 2020 State Capitol Christmas tree.

The approximately 25-foot Norway spruce donated by the Carroll family will be displayed outside on the Capitol portico. This year’s tree lighting ceremony was closed to the public due to COVID concerns, but you can view the tree from a distance throughout the holiday season.

The Capitol tree is lowered into place.

VDOF’s Jefferson work team members Michael Downey, Jonah Fielding, and David Powell, along with State Forester Rob Farrell, assisted with felling, loading, and transporting the tree to Richmond.

Locating and delivering the Capitol tree is an annual event for VDOF. About this time of year, many of us who work in the forestry field hear the question, “Isn’t it wasteful to cut down a tree just for Christmas?” The short answer is, “No!” The longer answer highlights the advantages of using real trees.

Detail of the spruce

Christmas trees are a crop, just like corn or soybeans. Christmas tree growers simply harvest their crop less often – every 7 years, on average. While the trees are growing, they are sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, and they store that carbon until they biodegrade – a nice benefit for a warming planet.

Christmas trees are a renewable resource. Tree farmers plant new trees to replace those that are cut – 2 to 3 trees for every one harvested, according to the Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association.

Christmas trees are also recyclable. Many localities chip the trees into mulch, to use in city landscaping or give away to citizens. Trees can be used to start brush piles for wildlife, or sunk in ponds to provide fish habitat. In some areas, recycled Christmas trees have stabilized stream banks or provided a foundation for new sand dunes along the coast.

By buying a locally grown tree, you support Virginia agriculture and your local economy. To help you find one, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services maintains a list of Virginia Christmas tree growers. Another option for a real tree is to use all or part of an evergreen from your yard that needs to come down. Planning ahead may even allow you to donate your tree to a local organization or municipality.

CBS19 shared a story about the tree harvest and the lighting ceremony that took place on December 2. Be sure to check out the Capitol tree if you’re in Richmond this month — and, check out one of Virginia’s farms for a tree of your own!

Virginia’s Capitol Tree Lighting, 2019

On the evening of December 5, State Forester Rob Farrell and Raina DeFonza (public information specialist) attended the Capitol Tree Lighting Ceremony in Richmond, Virginia with Helen Braunworth, Cindy Crickenberger and Wayne Crickenberger – donors of the Capitol tree. (Read for more details about the selection and harvest of this year’s Capitol tree.)

The weather was clear and cool for the evening event, and students from the orchestra at the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School provided the musical backdrop. The roughly 20-foot Colorado blue spruce stood tall between pillars in the portico at the Capitol Square and had been trimmed with multi-colored lights.


Student orchestra from Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School provided music for the ceremony.

First Lady Pamela Northam gave the opening remarks, followed by Secretary Bettina Ring and Governor Ralph Northam, who both acknowledged the Braunworth/Crickenberger family for the donated tree.

Left to right: Wayne Crickenberger, Helen Braunworth, Secretary Bettina Ring, Cindy Crickenberger, and State Forester Rob Farrell, standing in front of the Executive Mansion tree.

The tree lights turned on smoothly to the applause of attendees, and much of the crowd headed to the adjacent Executive Mansion to greet the Governor, observe the interior holiday decor and hear the student orchestra continue to play.

Virginia’s Capitol Christmas Tree, 2019

Each year, a live Virginia-grown tree is selected and harvested by the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) to serve as the Christmas tree on display at Virginia’s Capitol in Richmond. The annual Christmas trees are donated from tree farmers across state; this year, the tree selected was a roughly 20-foot Colorado blue spruce, donated by Helen Braunworth and Helen’s daughter and son-in-law Cindy and Wayne Crickenberger from Friendly Forest Farm – a certified Tree Farm in Augusta County. The tree is donated in honor of Helen and her late husband William “Bill” Braunworth.

The roughly 20-foot Colorado blue spruce before harvest.

Trees have historically been donated from tree farms in different regions of the state, but finding the right tree usually comes down to the tree farmers working with their local forester. Patti Nylander is a senior area forester in VDOF’s Western Region. Patti has developed a close working relationship with the Braunworth/Crickenberger family, and when it came time to identify the 2019 tree, Patti reached out to Cindy and Wayne to tour their properties in search of the perfect specimen.

Chris Thomsen (regional forester) says it may be easy to underestimate the relationships between foresters and landowners, but foresters are an essential contact for tree farmers and forest landowners; foresters are key players in supporting forest economy and management in our commonwealth. It’s this relationship that gave Patti the access and knowledge to find the right tree on the Friendly Forest Farm property – a substantial Colorado blue spruce that was likely planted more than 20 years ago.

On November 25, a harvest team assembled on the Braunworth property in Augusta County. The team consisted of Patti Nylander, Chris Thomsen, Brad Carrico (deputy regional forester) and Cole Young (forest technician). Wayne Crickenberger was tasked with felling the tree, with his wife Cindy and the VDOF staff there for preparations and logistics.

The process of cutting, wrapping and transporting a tree of this size is no simple task; the team had to plan their approach and prepare supplies in advance. First, the team unfurled a tarp and cut baling rope that would be used to wrap the tree, similarly to how a Christmas tree would be baled before being loaded onto someone’s car, except this tree was 12 to 15 feet wide!

Next, Wayne used a chainsaw to clear away the dead, low branches on the spruce. Then two smaller trees that blocked access to the selected tree were removed. WHSV reporter John Hood was on site reporting on the tree harvest and was allowed to take the smaller “Christmas tree” to the WHSV office.


John Hood posing with the small Christmas tree.


Wayne cut the tree, with Brad’s strategic guidance to ensure the tree fell appropriately onto the tarp and rope for baling. Once the tree was felled, the team worked quickly to wrap the tree.

Wayne Crickenberger baling the tree.


Patti Nylander (senior area forester) and Brad Carrico (deputy regional forester) baling the tree.

Wayne expertly navigated a tractor to carry the tree to the driveway, where VDOF’s flatbed truck was waiting. The tree was lifted and positioned on the truck bed and secured for the eventual long journey to Richmond.

Wayne Crickenberger driving the tractor.

Patti Nylander, Brad Carrico, Wayne Crickenberger and Cindy Crickenberger loading the tree onto the truck.

The tree will be housed in a garage at the Augusta Forestry Center in Crimora, Virginia, until December 2, when it will be delivered by flatbed to Richmond. Once it arrives there, a crew will lift the tree with a crane and set it in place on the portico at the Capitol building in preparation for a tree lighting ceremony with Governor Northam on December 5, which the Braunworth/Crickenberger family plans to attend. Stay tuned for photo updates!

Friendly Forest Farm is one of three tree farms owned by Helen Braunworth in Augusta County. Bill Braunworth was a dedicated tree farmer for more than 60 years; according to the family, Bill was responsible for hundreds of acres of planted trees and active forest and tree farm management in three states – New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Bill was recognized as a strong advocate for forest landowners and active forest management. He worked to demonstrate and facilitate sustainable forestry practices, soil conservation and water quality improvement on his own property and on public lands when the opportunity allowed.

Though the family no longer sells Christmas trees, the legacy of the farms stands strong; the properties are still treed with seedlings planted by Bill, and the family finds great importance in keeping the land in forest and out of development. Bill’s son-in-law Wayne believes he’d be delighted to know that a tree from his farm would stand at the Capitol.

Wayne and Cindy Crickenberger.

According to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS), there are nearly 500 farms across Virginia where Christmas trees are grown. In fact, Virginia is the seventh leading state in terms of total Christmas trees harvested. The most common types of trees sold as Christmas trees in Virginia include balsam fir, Douglas fir, Fraser fir, noble fir, Scotch pine, Virginia pine and white pine. The Christmas tree industry is a strong contributor to our agricultural economy, with annual sales of Virginia Christmas trees around $10 million. This industry, built around important holiday traditions, is an opportunity to support Virginian agricultural businesses.

Real trees are also an opportunity to support sustainable business; Virginia-grown trees are renewable and recyclable (unlike artificial trees) and growers typically plant two to three seedlings for every tree that is cut.

VDACS says that the supply for real Christmas trees is a little tight this year, but no one needs to worry about walking away empty handed – there is a real Christmas tree for everyone in 2019.

Some of the information in this post was sourced from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and from personal correspondence from the Braunworth/Crickenberger family to VDOF and the media in November, 2019.

First Mountain State Forest Dedication

On the afternoon of October 7, a crowd of more than 70 people gathered in Rockingham County for the dedication of Virginia’s newest state forest, First Mountain. First Mountain is the 25th state forest in Virginia and contributes more than 570 beautiful acres of forestland, open fields, and stream frontage to the state lands system.

Gary Heiser, State Forests Manager, selected an idyllic location on the property as a ceremony site. Near the heart of the property, the ceremony took place amid the fields of pine tree saplings, looking out to expansive views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Photo 1_FM Ceremony Site

Speakers during the ceremony were state forester Rob Farrell, secretary of agriculture and forestry Bettina Ring, delegate Tony Wilt, and Governor Ralph Northam. Todd Dofflemyer, grandson of Alfred and Virginia Dofflemyer, spoke as a representative of the family from whom the property was purchased.

Attendees included family members, property neighbors, Department of Forestry personnel, and state representatives. Following the series of speakers, photo ops, and interviews, attendees enjoyed refreshments and delicious green-tinted cupcakes.

First Mountain History

Originally part of Boone’s Run Farm, the property had been in the Dofflemyer family for multiple generations spanning more than 100 years. Alfred and Virginia Dofflemyer of Albemarle County were the most recent owners of the property and managed the property as a working tree farm until 2007.

During the ceremony, Todd Dofflemyer recalled memories of his grandparents and time spent on “the farm,” as the family simply called it. Todd shared a funny story about his grandfather Alfred’s attempt to begin specifically farming Christmas trees, only to have his efforts thwarted by his brother who mistakenly mowed down all of the newly planted trees in a bid to be helpful around the farm.

Vintage Tree Farm Sign at FM

Todd became emotional during the ceremony and indicated how pleased his grandparents would be to know that the land would be conserved and well-used in perpetuity.

After the ceremony, Alfred and Virginia’s daughter Martha Dofflemyer Baugh Clarke and niece Naomi Meadows discussed the family legacy of the land; in their memory, stewardship of the land extended as far back as their Uncle Dewey, who owned the land for decades before Alfred purchased the property from his brother. It’s possible the land was in the family even longer.

Martha said that the transfer of the property to the Department of Forestry’s care was important to her because it fulfills her father’s dream for the property. Naomi reminisced about summers on the farm as a child, when the family cut hay and she was allowed to ride her cousins’ horses around the property. She, too, is pleased that Boone’s Run is now First Mountain State Forest, because, “there is just too much cement asphalt in this world … and this is too beautiful to have that happen to it.”

 First Mountain as a State Forest

First Mountain lies on the southeast slopes of First Mountain (for which it was named) in the southern portion of the Massanutten range, and encompasses 573 acres of hardwood and pine stands, as well as open fields and more than 21,700 feet of stream frontage.

The property is also adjacent to 583 contiguous acres of the George Washington National Forest, meaning that the conservation of this land contributes to the overall conservation of large-scale, contiguous forest habitat in Virginia.

As a state forest, First Mountain will be protected from future development and will be open to multiple uses for Virginia residents and visitors. The property will continue on, in part, as a tree farm, but will also be open to hiking and mountain biking, and will be selectively opened to timber harvest and hunting in the future.

State Forests in Virginia

In addition to dedicating the newest state forest, the event served as a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the state forest system in Virginia.

Secretary Ring mused on the importance that forestland has played in her life, from childhood memories with her father through her career as a forester. Secretary Ring was pleased that the dedication of First Mountain State Forest was serving as our opportunity to celebrate the anniversary, because First Mountain has “a great name and a great story.”  “There’s no better way to celebrate the 100th anniversary than the dedication of a new one.”

During his remarks, Governor Northam called on the well-known children’s book, The Lorax by Dr. Seuss, to serve as an example for mindful stewardship of our forestland. Following the ceremony, Governor Northam further explained how the State Forest system contributes to his vision for conservation in Virginia.

In addition to protecting forestland, state forests like First Mountain play an important role in improving water quality from the mountains to the Chesapeake Bay. State Forester Rob Farrell previously said of First Mountain, “Water is what makes this place special. With more than 21,000 feet of stream frontage and 43,422 feet of vegetated buffers, First Mountain plays an important role in improving water quality, recreation and tourism opportunities and ultimately the health of the Chesapeake Bay.”

State Forest Meme2

Field Notes: A Proud Forest Legacy

by Area Forester Kyle Dingus

In 2014 the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) celebrated its 100th anniversary. At the time, I was less than a year into my job as an Area Forester serving the NOVA work area. Through college I had always admired the VDOF and was excited to be a part of the agency. I was impressed by the diversity of management and conservation-related duties it is responsible for and implements. It wasn’t until last year that I realized how valued VDOF’s technical advice has been over the years to the landowners of the Commonwealth.

I have worked with Betsy and Rodger Hille of Rappahannock County since 2015, helping them manage the forest on their 59-acre property. While completing their Stewardship Plan last year I realized that I was the fourth-generation forester from the agency to work on this tract of land. This 66-year legacy included the work of four foresters: W.C. Vernam in 1952, Buck Cline in 1988, Martin Agee in 2002 and continues with me today. While I had come across those foresters in the landowner files in my office, I never encountered this many foresters associated with one tract. Initially, I did not make the connection, but when I was completing the final touches of the plan the significance of this management legacy hit home.

At least four different landowners have overseen this property and sought VDOF assistance since 1952. The landowners’ relationships with VDOF have resulted in timber harvests, tree plantings for pasture conversion, Tree Farm Designation, management plans, native warm season grass maintenance and invasive species control.  None of these landowners had to go through VDOF, but over the generations they have come to us. I can see the positive effect our recommendations have had on the forest over time. While I’m happy the recommendations have been helpful and implemented, the best thing to come of this from my perspective has been the knowledge that VDOF has been and continues to be a reliable source of forest management information.

Kyle Dingus is an Area Forester in the NOVA work area.

“When I was a young man I worked for the Forest Service in California on a fire crew and a TSI crew, so it seemed natural that when my wife and I needed assistance with our management plan that we would turn to the VDOF for guidance.  We found Forester Kyle Dingus to be extremely knowledgeable about our property and its flora and fauna.  His recommendations have been tailored to both our needs and resources.  We would recommend him and the VDOF to any property owners concerned about stewardship of their land.”  — Roger Hille, landowner