Thieves stealing millions in trees

Sunday, May 18, 2003

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 snaps that resonate from a Western red cedar as it teeters. He loves slip-sliding on the forest floor in his spiked boots, hauling cedar to his pickup truck in the Olympia National Forest.

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

The only thing 38-year-old Hughes doesn't like about cutting down old growth is going to jail, which is where he is now. But that doesn't happen to tree thieves often.

"There are a lot of trees out there," Hughes said. "It's easy to get away with this."

Feeling entitled

Tree theft is a problem in forests all over the country, from Washington's Olympic Mountains to New York's Adirondacks. The victims are lumber companies, private land owners and the public.

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

Hughes put it this way in an interview at Grays Harbor County Jail southwest of Seattle:

"To me it's like, 'This land is your land and this land is my land.' I'm taking my share."

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

Private landowners, who account for 55 percent 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 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 $1 billion a year at the saw mill. 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 1995, and most state and federal investigators say they are too busy with other crimes to give the problem attention.

Just three people were charged with stealing trees from U.S. property in 2001, down from 15 in 1996. Even when tree thieves are caught, penalties are usually light -- small fines or, in a few states, three or four months in jail.

For tree thieves, this means low risk. With an old growth cedar, for example, bringing up to $5,000 at the sawmill, the typical timber thief can reap $100,000 from a few days' work in the woods.

Changing industry

Tree theft, experts say, is a result of major changes in America's lumber industry.

Recession in the 1980s caused timber prices to sink, throwing thousands of lumbermen out of work. By then, 98 percent 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 timber land for private estates. 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. "Yeah, we saw one (once). We tried to kill it."

Hughes was 14 when he first went to work in the woods with his father. As he grew older, he eventually was unable to find work in the declining industry. About 45,000 lumbermen were employed in the United States in 2001, down from about 85,000 in 1989, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Wayne Sparling, who has spent his life in New York's Catskills, was acquitted of timber theft in 1999. In a recent interview, he insisted he doesn't poach trees, but said he understands why people do.

"These city people are coming in here, they spend big bucks, rub it in your face," he said. "They're buying up everything, and then they let the trees stand and rot. They won't let a guy in to take a few trees. So what's a guy to do?"

In New York, the thieves prey on absentee landlords. They "watch for the owner to leave and then move in," said Lt. Jim Masuicca of the state's Department of Environmental Conservation Police.

In Hawaii, where authorities said tree theft is rampant, the main target is Koa, a dark wood prized for making bowls, rocking chairs and musical instruments. Police recently traced four container-loads of stolen koa, and a ring of timber poachers was indicted.

Despite the size of the problem, the Hawaii division of Forestry and Wildlife averages four tree-theft prosecutions a year.

'I stole a tree'

According to court records, Hughes has been caught a half-dozen times since the mid-1980s. Last year, a prosecutor persuaded a judge that several ancient cedars Hughes and one of his friends had stolen were irreplaceable treasures. That time, a judge ordered the two of them to pay $290,000 in restitution.

Last September, Hughes was at it again, cutting down three cedars in Olympic National Forest. In April, he was found guilty of first degree theft. This time, prosecutors are seeking a sentence of up to 10 years. Sentencing is scheduled for May 23.

To Hughes, this is all wildly unfair.

"I'm in here with murderers and rapists," he said in a pretrial interview. "They ask me, 'What's your beef?' and I tell them, 'Well, I stole a tree.'"

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