City Officials to Allow Christmas Tree at Summit of Camelback Mountain After Outcry

Christmas spirit beat out wilderness-area ethics in the fight to keep a Christmas tree at the summit of Phoenix's iconic Camelback Mountain.

City officials reversed course on Wednesday afternoon, deciding to allow a undecorated tree after saying previously that all trees would be removed.

Rangers removed a large tree from the summit last week that had been sponsored by The Beverly on Main, a Scottsdale restaurant, prompting an outcry among supporters in news articles and social media. A petition, started by a small group of people who have been putting up a tree for the past four year, had about 1,300 virtual signatures of people who wanted to save the tree as of Wednesday morning.

Gregg Bach, a city spokesman, told New Times on Tuesday and Wednesday morning that the city has never tolerated Christmas trees and holiday decorations on Camelback Mountain, and that if anyone replaces the tree removed by rangers on November 26, the substitute will be taken out.

But on Wednesday afternoon, Bach said, "The situation has changed," and e-mailed New Times a statement.

The parks department has a general mission to keep mountain parks in as natural a state as possible. But after being lobbied by Christmas tree supporters, Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton and Councilwoman Laura Pastor asked Parks and Rec to keep negotiating, Bach said.

The new plan, according to Bach, will require supporters to clean up Christmas trash at the summit — the candy-cane wrappers, ribbons, tinsel, and other bits of rubbish that may be scattered about because of the tree.

"In the spirit of the holiday season, we've come to an agreement to temporarily allow a non-decorated natural tree on Camelback Mountain through January 1, 2017.

"Members of that group will remove decorations and monitor the site for debris on a daily basis, with help from park ranger staff. The Phoenix Parks and Recreation Board will work to find a permanent solution for future years and welcomes public input."

Hikers filled with holiday spirit have been bringing trees to the summit of Camelback for years. Rangers have taken down the trees on occasion, but they've often allowed them to remain through the holiday season.

This year, a person or persons unknown sawed the decorated tree in half. City officials said the top half was never found. Rangers took down the rest of the tree, and the city made the initial pronouncement that a replacement tree would not be tolerated.

Camelback Santa
 (who asked that New Times withhold his real name), is one the tree's most vocal supporters. The Scottsdale resident has dressed as Santa for the past few years, handing out candy canes to hikers on the summit and posing for photos next to the Christmas tree. He told New Times that tree advocates would keep bringing up trees no matter what the official policy, and that he'd chain himself to the summit, if need be, to protect a Christmas tree.

Later on Wednesday, Camelback Santa participated in a conference call with Parks and Recreation Director Inger Erickson and other officials, in which Erickson agreed to allow a new tree in exchange for cleaning up the area. Camelback Santa said he will help pick up rubbish on a daily basis at the summit and take down any ornaments people put on the tree that might be blown off by the wind.

The new tree, also sponsored by The Beverly, will be installed on Friday in time for hikers to see on it Saturday morning, Camelback Santa said.

Supporters of the tree updated their petition with a message thanking the public for its help.

The full message appears below:

NOV 30, 2016 — Dear Friends,
Great News! Thanks in large part to YOUR support, we have arranged to have a replacement tree on Camelback by Saturday morning! This could not have happened without your wonderful support for this happy and unique Arizona tradition. Currently, nearly 1,200 signed this online petition and still counting and many helped in other various ways. THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU! We would like to particularly thank Mark from the City of Phoenix (he asked that we not use his last name) for facilitating change in this matter.

The Parks Department has promised NOT to remove the replacement tree and repeatedly insisted they only removed the tree parts after the tree was discovered cut in half early Saturday. We do not believe this was any sort of a hate crime on account of the symbols of various religions we included on the top of tree to make it inclusive and respectful of all faiths. In the event that the Grinch tries to ruin everyone's holiday by vandalizing the new tree, don't worry, we will carry up another replacement - as many times as we must! ;-)

Please help us and the Phoenix Parks & Rec. team do our part, if you see broken ornaments, candy cane wrappers, or other trash of any sort on the mountain, please pick it up so we can all enjoy this tradition for years to come. Remember to bring a non-fragile ornament and extra water to feed the tree..!! The mission is always to leave the world better than the way we found it!!

We hope you have a happy and healthy holiday season. We look forward to seeing you by the tree. Furthermore, Camelback Santa will be up every weekend in December and December 21 through Christmas day from about 8am-2pm (weather pending) handing out candy canes and posing for pictures.
Your friends,
Max Dembow, Joel Borch, Jeffrey Franks, & Camelback Santa

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern