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Tree Thieves Often Chop With Impunity

Rogues slip into the forest to fell old-growth timber. Odds are they'll get away with it, pocketing $100,000 for a few days' hard work.

May 18, 2003|Martha Mendoza | Associated Press Writer

OLYMPIC NATIONAL FOREST, Wash. — Daniel Hughes loves stealing trees.

He loves the pungent mix of blue chain-saw exhaust and spicy fresh wood. He loves the loud, short snaps that resonate from an 800-year-old Western red cedar as it teeters. He loves slip-sliding on the forest floor in his spiked boots, hauling cedar down a slope to his waiting pickup truck in the Olympia National Forest.

He even loves the tension. Stealing trees is, after all, breaking the law.

The only thing Hughes doesn't like about cutting down old growth is going to jail, which is where he is now. But that doesn't happen often to tree thieves.

"I know the forest like the back of my hand, and there are a lot of trees out there," said Hughes, 38. "It's easy to get away with this."

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Tree theft is a major problem in forests throughout the country, from the old-growth cedar of Washington's Olympic Mountains to the maple and cherry hardwoods of New York's Adirondacks.

The victims are lumber companies, private landowners and the public.

The thieves are mostly chronically unemployed men from logging towns seething with resentment over conservation measures that have sharply reduced cutting, forestry experts say. They generally feel entitled to what they take.

Hughes, who fits the profile, put it this way in an interview at Grays Harbor County Jail two hours southwest of Seattle:

"To me, it's like, 'This land is your land and this land is my land.' I'm taking my share. I don't really see this as stealing."

Major lumber companies, whose woodlands account for about 35% of the country's lumber production, say 3% of the trees cut on their property yearly are carted away by thieves. They estimate their losses at $350 million a year.

Private landowners, whose tree farms and woodlands make up 55% of U.S. lumber production, don't track theft as a group; but the American Tree Farm System, which represents them, said their losses are extreme.

And U.S. Forest Service officials estimate that as many as one in every 10 trees cut in national forests is taken illegally.

A dozen forestry economists consulted by the Associated Press said that, based on the limited data available, thieves may be stealing trees worth at least $1 billion a year at the sawmill. That's enough to produce the framing, siding and shingles for about 25,000 single-family homes. By comparison, the estimated value of auto theft was about $8 billion last year.

Nevertheless, arrests and prosecutions for tree theft are uncommon.

The U.S. Forest Service's timber-theft unit was disbanded in an agency reorganization in the spring of 1995, and most state and federal investigators say they are too busy with other crimes to give the problem attention.

Three people were charged with stealing trees from U.S. property in 2001, down from 15 in 1996, according to Justice Department records obtained by Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

"In general, law enforcement try to stay away from this," said Tom Kazee, a timber theft consultant in Orange Park, Fla. "They're not going to drop a murder case for a tree."

Even when tree thieves are caught and convicted, penalties are usually light -- small fines or, in a few states, three or four months in jail.

For the tree thieves, this means low risk and solid profits.

Although the overall price of wood has decreased by about 10% in the last five years, prices for scarce woods such as old-growth cedar, birds-eye maple and Hawaiian koa have increased tenfold. One old-growth cedar now brings as much as $5,000 at the sawmill.

The typical timber thief, experts say, can reap $100,000 from a few hard days' work in the woods.

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Michael Roy Pendleton, a former police officer who teaches about environmental crimes at the University of Washington, said tree-stealing has long been a part of the logging culture.

A generation or two ago in lumber towns from Oregon to South Carolina, timber company employees occasionally supplemented their incomes by taking a tree or two for themselves, he said.

"Back then, there was no notion that we could ever run out of trees," Pendleton said. "It was an unlimited resource."

Since then, everything has changed.

A recession in the 1980s caused timber prices to sink, throwing thousands of lumbermen out of work. By then, 98% of America's original old-growth forests had been cut, prompting efforts to conserve what was left.

In the prosperous 1990s, the rich increasingly began buying up tracts of timberland for private estates, further reducing land available for cutting, according to forestry economists.

And in 1993, the federal government tightened restrictions on cutting old-growth trees on public land to save habitat for threatened spotted owls.

"The spotted owl?" Hughes said scornfully. "I don't believe it exists."

After all his time in the forests, didn't he ever see one?

"Yeah, we saw one," he said. "We tried to kill it."

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