Timber poaching grows on Washington public land

A man was sentenced to federal prison in January 2018 for cutting down bigleaf maple trees in Olympic National Park, in search of maple with a unique grain that is used to make electric guitars. That same month two men were arrested for illegally cutting down Douglas firs on Washington Department of Natural Resources state trust land in Snohomish County.

Poaching wood from public lands in the West has become an epidemic in recent years, fueled by demand for uniquely grained wood used to build furniture and electric guitars. And there are desperate people, some of them addicts, who are willing to meet that demand by illegally cutting the wood from federal and DNR land. According to a gripping 2017 article in High Country News, “Forest Service documents suggest that tree thievery costs the agency up to $100 million each year. And no region, perhaps, is more afflicted than western Washington.”

The man sentenced to federal prison earlier this year admitted to stealing a bigleaf maple whose timber was valued at nearly $9,000.

This month the Tacoma News Tribune tagged along as state Department of Natural Resources police officer Jason Bodine patrolled the Capitol State Forest near Olympia. Winter is a busy time for Bodine as timber thieves take advantage of the fact that fewer people are in the forests.

The Big Leaf maple had stood for over a century. Maybe two.

It’s a little hard to tell — what with it being sawed into blocks. It had been felled illegally by a tree poacher in the Capitol Forest near Olympia.

…“Look at the size of this,” Bodine said. “Why would you cut it down?”

The poacher felled the tree just for a few sections of wood that contained figured grain. The ancient tree, owned by the public, was illegally cut so that someone could have fancy cabinets or a kick-ass electric guitar.

“That’s hundreds of years. You can’t get that back, not quickly,” Bodine said.

Finding the thieves takes detective work.

Bodine knows when a tree poacher has been looking for victims. The trees bear distinctive marks.

“They’ll cut bark off to see if the tree has the grain they’re looking for,” Bodine said. “What I have to do is stay ahead of them. Are they coming back for them?”

Bodine uses hidden cameras that can send a real-time image to his smart phone.

The maple that Bodine showed the News Tribune was illegally cut down in June. The DNR officer says he caught half of the duo responsible.

Bodine found a man standing in a nearby road, waiting to get picked up along with his chainsaw and ill-gotten gains. Another man took off running.

“I never did get him,” Bodine said of the accomplice. “But, I got the main guy. He had sawdust all over him.”

The man was eventually convicted for the theft.

It’s not enough to put a dollar amount on a resource theft, Bodine said. The repercussions can be far reaching.

“There’s a whole ecosystem in here,” Bodine said of the maple. “The canopy provided shade for this wetland. When it was cut down, it’s exposing this whole area to sunshine.”