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A variety of methods can be used to collect cones, including climbing trees, using lifts, shooting down cones, removing cones with pole pruners, and felling the tree and removing the cones. Factors to consider when determining how to collect cones include the size of the tree, the area’s topography, proximity to roads, licensing or certifications required, skills of personnel, urgency of need, availability of equipment, local policy, and available funding. Either contract or force-account crews could make the collection, so long as the crews meet the appropriate qualifications. Be sure that the source of the collection is closely controlled. Do not allow any practices that could jeopardize the quality of the cones or seed.

Tree Climbing

Tree climbing is one of the oldest methods for cone collection and the least destructive; it is suitable for most species of trees and for trees of any size. The climber ascends the tree using ladders, climbing spurs, ascenders, or various friction knot climbing techniques. Do not use spurs to climb white pine, whitebark pine, or other five-needle pines, because spurs can damage these trees. You may require the climbers to hang a flag at the highest point from which they collected to help ensure that the climber collected from the upper crown.

Once climbers are in the tree, they should use a long hook to pull a branch toward them. After they pick the cones, they put them in a cone sack that is secured to their climbing harness. When the sack is full, the climber should lower it to the ground. Dropping the sack of cones will damage the seeds. Cones should be cleaned and transferred to regular cone bags for storage and transport.

Other methods of collecting cones include clipping the ends of the branches with a pole pruner or similar device and allowing the branch and attached cones to fall to the ground. To prevent the cones from becoming contaminated by fusarium or other diseases, drop the branches onto a tarp. Pick the cones from the branches and store the cones in the regular cone bags. Use caution if you transport the branches before picking the cones, because the branches can heat up if they are piled for too long, damaging the seed.

Safety—Forest Service climbers shall follow the National Tree Climbing Guide and FSH 6709.11 Health and Safety Code Handbook section 22.49, Tree Climbing, as well as local policy and practices. All safety requirements must be followed, including but not limited to:

  • Using proper climbing equipment and personal protective equipment
  • Being secured from falls while collecting cones
  • Being properly trained and certified
  • Working in teams with a ground person capable of performing an in-tree rescue
  • Maintaining communication.

Special Equipment

  • Cone Hook—Poles about 4 feet long with a hook at one end and a lanyard at the other that is attached to the climbing harness. The hook is used to pull branches to the climber that would otherwise be out of reach.

  • S-Hooks—Bent pieces of metal rod that hold the cone sack open during picking.

  • Cone Sacks—Sacks used during cone picking that can be carried into the tree easily. The sacks are closed with twine or cable ties.

Tree Felling

Felling trees can be the simplest way to collect cones, when this method is acceptable. Be sure that the cones are ripe before the tree is felled, because they will not continue to develop afterward. Active logging operations may offer an opportunity for cone collection if the felling can be timed appropriately and cones can be collected safely during the logging operation. To avoid contaminating the cones, collect only cones that have not contacted the ground.

Safety—Forest Service employees must be properly trained and certified for felling trees of various size classes. Refer to local requirements and FSH 6709.11 Health and Safety Code Handbook section 22.48—Chain Saw Operations. If you are collecting in an active sale area, coordinate your activities with the timber sale administrator and logger to ensure your safety and that of the other workers.


Collecting cones by shooting cone-bearing branches from a tree is practical for small collections, especially for trees such as true firs that have large quantities of cones at the top of the tree. It is also practical for small collections when testing cone ripeness. Branches or treetops up to 6 inches in diameter can be sheared from the tree with several shots from a .223-caliber rifle with a heavy barrel, such as those used by target shooters. To be successful, the shooter must have a clear view of the target, have a steady rest for the rifle, and have patience and good shooting skills. It is best to have a hillside behind the tree that will stop the bullets. Bullets can travel for more than a mile otherwise.

Safety—Forest Service employees must be properly authorized to carry and use firearms. Refer to FSH 6709.11 Health and Safety Code Handbook, section 51.2—Firearms for Non-Law Enforcement Personnel and local direction. Use all required personal protective equipment and ensure that people and livestock are not at risk.

Clipping from the Ground

Collections can also be made from the ground using pole pruners or pole saws to cut the branches with cones from short trees. Do not be tempted to collect from trees that are too young or that are of poor quality just because their cones are within easy reach.

Personnel Lifts

When trees are close to roads or on level ground, cherry pickers or other approved lifting devices may be used to access the treetops when collecting cones. Once workers reach the tree’s crown, they can use the methods described in tree climbing when picking the cones. Workers should be careful not to reduce the quality of the collection just because certain trees are easy to access.

Safety—Only trained and authorized persons may work from lifts. Refer to FSH 6709.11 Health and Safety Code Handbook, section 44.1.

Helicopter Collection

In the past, large quantities of cones were collected using various aerial collection techniques. Although the method is acceptable, such large quantities of cones are rarely collected anymore. The most common techniques were aerial raking and aerial shearing. More information on using helicopters to collect cones is available from A Guide to Aerial Cone Collection Equipment and Techniques in British Columbia.

Other Methods

A variety of other methods can be used, including using tree shakers that shake cones from the tree. Such methods are used infrequently, so they are not covered here. The main consideration is to collect cones in a cost-efficient manner, to protect the cones, and to protect the trees, if necessary.

Squirrel Cache Collection

This method was common 20 or more years ago throughout the West. It has been discontinued because of the inability to determine which trees are represented by the cones in the cache and because of the potential for high levels of contamination that can spoil the current crop and contaminate nursery equipment used to process cones and seed.

Purchasing Cones or Seed

Purchasing cones or seed on the open market generally is not acceptable because the source cannot be controlled. The Forest Service can purchase seed from other sources in a few special cases, but these cases are limited to Tree Improvement Cooperatives or similar arrangements. Cooperative agreements can be used where private companies collect cones in exchange for a portion of the seed collected.

It is acceptable to pay a contractor for collecting cones using any of the methods described above, so long as the Forest Service is selecting or is approving the selection of the seed trees.

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