New for 2019, the Shawnee National Forest in Illinois is offering a $5 permit to cut down the Christmas tree of your choice from forest lands. Some restrictions apply, of course.
The permit must be obtained in person at one of the three offices (Jonesboro, Vienna, or Harrisburg). The Jonesboro office is closest to Cape Girardeau, but is only open Tuesday through Friday (the other two offices are open Monday through Friday).
I took advantage of an off day from work to pick up my permit on Black Friday. The worker at the Vienna office seemed a bit overwhelmed by the demand for the permits -- he had already sold 16 that day.
The Christmas trees can be taken from most Shawnee National Forest lands except for designated natural areas, wilderness areas, certain historic sites, and developed recreational areas and trailheads. Still, that leaves a wide swath of acreage available.
When getting the permit, be sure to pick up a free Motor Vehicle Use Map ("MVUM" in bureaucracy-speak). This map, although somewhat hard to read, shows exactly which forest roads are legally open to traffic. It's certainly much easier to find a tree along a road instead of dragging it a long distance through the brush.
The MVUM also shows exactly which parcels are part of the National Forest, a critical detail that is not shown on many maps or services like Google Earth. Nevertheless, Google Earth can still be helpful in scouting potential tree locations. The trick is to use the "historical imagery" tool to find aerial photos taken during the winter. This will make any stands of pine trees stick out like sore thumbs against the rest of the leafless deciduous woods. Unfortunately, the forest lands closest to Cape Girardeau are generally more devoid of pine trees than areas farther to the east.
Once you've found a suitable place to explore, the next big challenge is actually finding a decent specimen. The tree ought to be larger than a "Charlie Brown tree" to make it worthwhile. But it needs to be smaller than a "Clark Griswold tree." The permit only allows taking a tree shorter than 15 feet. It will soon become apparent that very few wild evergreen trees actually fit the target criteria -- most are too big, too small, too wobbly, or too misshapen.
Still, the whole point is to spend time in the great outdoors while arguing in the fresh air with loved ones about which tree is the right one to cut. And then feel the inevitable regret after finding an even better one just down the road. The reward, after all of the effort, is to triumphantly bring home a good old-fashioned asymmetric Christmas tree that ends up being way too big for your living room.
Then you can announce to everyone, "Looks great! Little full, lotta sap."