Maples falling victim to backwoods thieves
Baby boomers' love of gorgeous guitars feeds the demand for exotic-looking wood — and gives criminals with chainsaws an easy way to make a quick buck.
Seattle Times environment reporter
SHELTON, Mason County — The crime occurred far back in the woods, off a dead-end gravel road where no one would hear the fatal cut or see the victim fall.
It wouldn't be discovered until Mason County Sheriff's Deputy Ted Drogmun came upon a path in the underbrush while patrolling the forest west of Shelton. He had to hike into a gully to find what was left of the 85-foot maple tree.
Sawdust and chunks of wood were scattered all around. Most of the log still lay where it fell. But the thieves had gotten at least part of what they came for: pieces hardly larger than a shoebox, neatly carved from the base of the log.
Why would they go to this much trouble, only to leave most of the tree behind?
Because a lot of people love pretty guitars. And now Northwest forests are paying for it.
All around Western Washington, from backyards to fragile stream banks, grand old big-leaf maples are being felled and dismembered to feed a black market born of an insatiable demand for the hardwood and its eye-catching whorls and ripples.
There's a new state law specifically aimed at punishing maple thieves. But the law has enraged legitimate woodworkers who fear being wrongly ensnared, while the illicit cutters continue, hidden in the remote woods, able to dodge a tiny law-enforcement effort and fueled by the hunger for quick cash.
Just like a host of other plants that are illegally harvested in the Northwest — from moss to bear grass to cedar trees — it's an underground trade that has grown up right alongside a legitimate one.
"It's funny. It seems that just about anything that grows in the woods has a market," Drogmun said.
To the untrained eye, one big-leaf maple looks like the other: tall and gangly, with leaves the size of dinner plates. Loggers usually consider them to be of low value. So the biggest ones might get milled for furniture, while the small ones are sent to pulp mills.
Yet a little know-how and a quick chop can reveal whether an ordinary-looking tree is actually a rare one worth tens of thousands of dollars if milled properly.
Beneath the bark might be distinctive puckers, ripples and warts, signs that the honey-colored wood can be cut and polished to reveal a three-dimensional pattern of shimmering flames or undulations.
That's why Drogmun sees a lot of big maple trees near Shelton that are missing small patches of bark.
As he walked along the trail to the site of the fallen maple one day this spring, Drogmun gestured at a particularly large maple on private timberland.
"I bet if you went over there and looked, it has check marks in it," he said.
He won the bet. Six small patches of missing bark, each the size of an outspread hand, ringed the tree.
The night fellers
Drogmun, a former logger, is one of just a handful of officers who pursue tree poachers in the forests of the Olympic Peninsula. He's found maple trees cut down in the backyards of Hood Canal vacation homes, along ecologically fragile streams, and in the no-cut buffers that logging companies must leave.
The thieves often work at night, cutting trees under the glow of headlamps or spotlights. Usually it's one or two trees at a time, but on at least one occasion it has been more than a dozen.
There's usually some connection to illegal drugs, whether it's a small baggie of methamphetamine found in a suspect's pocket or, in one case, a makeshift meth lab in the back of a pickup.
"There's a lot of people that are trying to support habits," he said.
No one has tried to count exactly how many maples are falling to thieves, but it appears to be hundreds a year.
Jared Eison, who patrols state-owned land on the Olympic Peninsula, said he comes across the remains of poached maples 50 to 100 times a year, sometimes involving several trees.
But more of the poaching happens on private land, he said. And there's federally owned national-forest land, too.
Yet Eison can recall "very, very few" arrests. In the past five years, Drogmun estimated he's gotten just 10 to 20 convictions for maple theft.
It's a twist on the old conundrum: If a tree is cut down and no one hears it, it's still a crime. But it's often impossible to find the criminal.
On a narrow road east of Elma, in Grays Harbor County, a cluster of patched-together, metal-sided buildings seems an unlikely place to find the global economy at work. But that's where Donny Van Orman has built a small maple empire.
This sawmill is where his father once cut cedar shakes. Now Van Orman buys chunks of maple and cedar, cures them, and mills them into pieces to become the bodies of guitars. He has shipped them as far away as China, Japan and the Czech Republic.
It's mills like this one where some of the stolen maple winds up.
Van Orman said he tries to avoid stolen wood. He won't buy small, easy-to-carry blocks — often a sign of stolen wood. But he said he's sure there are other mills that aren't so fussy. That means they get their wood much cheaper than he can.
"Every time they do that, it hurts me tremendously," he said. "They only paid half of what I paid, and it's the best stuff. How am I supposed to compete with that?"
No mill operator has ever been charged with trafficking in stolen maple. When police do catch someone, it's a guy with a chainsaw.
Two years ago, Van Orman joined timber companies to ask the state Legislature to crack down on illegal tree cutting. In response, so-called "music wood" was added to a list of forest products requiring permits to harvest or possess. A person breaking the law can be charged with a misdemeanor, meaning a maximum of a year in jail and $1,000 fine.
Van Orman thinks the law is better than nothing. But he figures people will avoid it by getting a permit for one area and stealing from a different place — or just ignoring it altogether.
Meanwhile, good maple is getting harder and harder to find, he said.
"Every time they take [a tree] down, it's gone," he said. "You go way out in the woods, it's gone. They've taken it."
By the time a chunk of maple reaches a guitar maker's shop, it's nearly impossible to tell where it came from.
Michael Gurian, a veteran guitar maker whose company churns out guitar parts from a barge converted to a floating instrument factory in Ballard, said he buys wood only from trusted mills. That means turning down the strangers who call once or twice a month offering to sell blocks of maple, he said.
But there are dozens of other guitar makers in the area, from hobbyists to serious manufacturers. The numbers have taken off lately as baby boomers with money and nostalgia develop an appetite for custom-made guitars.
"It's pretty easy to sell stuff these days," Gurian said of the maple. "Especially with the Internet."
Law cast a broad net
While the two-year-old music-wood law hasn't stopped tree poaching, it has managed to catch honest victims, its critics say.
In January 2006, Joaquin Quezada, who carves wooden statues with a chainsaw in his Enumclaw workshop, was driving home with three cedar logs in his truck when a Pierce County sheriff's deputy pulled him over. The deputy asked to see Quezada's permit for the logs.
Quezada said he had never heard of the need for a permit for these kinds of logs. He said they came from homeowners who wanted to get rid of trees that had been cut down or were blown down by the wind.
The deputy confiscated the logs, and Quezada was charged with transporting cedar without a permit.
When the Legislature cracked down on maple theft, it also included red cedar, red alder and Engelmann and Sitka spruce, all wood that is also used in musical instruments.
Quezada fought the charge but was convicted in Pierce County District Court and sentenced to three days of community service. His appeal was rejected. He estimates he has spent $21,000 fighting the case.
"I didn't do anything wrong," he said.
Quezada's experience, and his subsequent efforts to change the law, have ignited his fellow woodworkers.
Allan Schwindt, a Cowlitz County woodworker and representative for the International Wood Collectors Society, said people used to offer him free wood all the time — before he learned of the new law.
"If someone calls me and says, 'I've got a tree we're taking out, do you want to get it?' — well, not now. I don't want to get involved," he said.
Even Howard Thronson, of the state Department of Natural Resources, agrees that the new law might have overreached.
"The net got cast in such a broad area that innocent people are getting caught up in it," he said.
This year, the Legislature passed a bill allowing people to prove that they own the wood, so they aren't open to punishment just for not having the right paperwork. It also ordered a study of ways to improve the law.
But Van Orman, the mill owner, remains doubtful that changes to the law will stop a determined tree thief.
"Everybody knows the poachers. They [law enforcement] slap their hands," he said, "then they go out and do it again."
Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or email@example.com