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A man cuts down a Christmas tree at the Jollitree Farm U-Cut in Hilden, N.S., on Dec. 20, 2012.

PAUL DARROW/The Globe and Mail

Pulling on snow boots and heading out onto publicly owned land with a saw and hot chocolate in search of the perfect Christmas tree is an annual tradition for many Canadian families, but across vast swaths of this country, provincial governments have embraced the ritual with some reluctance or banned it completely.

Western Canadian provinces allow locals to cut down a fragrant evergreen from Crown land to fill their living rooms with festive cheer during the Christmas season. The situation in Ontario is more complicated.

U.S. Christmas tree shortage a gift for Canadian growers, a scramble for buyers

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Ontarians looking to find their own Christmas trees must travel north of the French and Mattawa rivers, both of which are near Sudbury and North Bay. That is about a four hour drive each way from the Greater Toronto Area. The provincial government does not allow the cutting of firs, spruces or pines for personal use in the southern half of the province due to the "large amount of privately owned land" and the dearth of surplus crown land with conifers.

The Ontario government also does not widely advertise the availability of Christmas trees on public land or the law that allows each person in the province to cut one tree without a permit for Christmas use. Even though some of the millions of people living around Toronto could make a family day of heading north and cutting a tree in the province's vast northern crown lands, the government says it would rather they stay home.

"We would prefer people who have ready access to tree farms in the south use them," Emily Kirk, a spokeswoman for Ontario's Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry, told The Globe and Mail. "They are supporting the economy by buying an Ontario tree."

Some provinces are far more enthusiastic about letting people take a saw to crown land.

"Heading out to find the perfect Christmas tree is a cherished tradition for many Alberta families," starts the government of Alberta's easy-to-access web page on Christmas tree permits. "You can cut your own Christmas tree on provincial Crown land." The prairie province's Agriculture and Forestry Ministry also gives Albertans tips on the best way to cut their allotted three trees each, directs them to the areas where trees are easiest to find and allows them to buy the $5 permit online. In Saskatchewan, you don't need a permit to cut down a Christmas tree for personal use, provided the tree is less than four metres tall.

Permits in Canada's Pacific province are free as long as a single tree is cut down per family, although the B.C. government limits where people can get the trees. Most of the permits closer to the Lower Mainland this year are for trees on hydro rights-of-way.

The price and ease of getting a permit to cut down a Christmas tree or gather pine tips to make wreaths varies by province, with the notable exception of Quebec, where the forest ministry has banned the practice completely and will fine an offender $300 for cutting down a Christmas tree. The amount increases if someone has cut several trees or is a Christmas re-offender, according to Sylvain Carrier, a spokesman with Quebec's Ministry of Forests, Wildlife and Parks. "To avoid the hassle and enjoy a 100-per-cent natural Christmas tree, the ministry suggests buying a tree from a Christmas tree grower," he told The Globe in French.

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Nova Scotia does not issue individual permits to residents for cutting down trees on public land. However, companies can apply for permits for large-scale harvesting. In New Brunswick, cutting a Crown tree requires some paperwork. Residents must seek a permit from a district office of the Department of Energy and Resource Development, and indicate where they want to cut. This is to make sure people do not accidentally take trees from protected areas. After reviewing, a provincial official decides whether to grant the permit.

Officials from Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador did not return requests for their rules on chopping down trees on Crown land.

Some Canadians could be driven to Crown lands for a tree this year because the prices of commercially grown ones has risen about 10 per cent Canada-wide due to a shortage of evergreens south of the border. The effect of U.S. shortages of pines, spruces and firs was most pronounced in B.C.

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