Plundering of timber lucrative for thieves, a problem for state

Next month, a federal court judge will try to put a value on something that’s somewhat priceless: trees stolen from the Olympic National Forest.

The trees in question include old-growth fir, six feet across, that laid down roots before the Revolutionary War; they include intricately patterned maple destined to become high-end musical instruments; they include cedar for shingle or shake.

All of them, the U.S. Attorney’s Office says, were stolen by Reid Johnston, the son of a prominent family that had laid its own roots alongside those same trees on the Olympic Peninsula decades ago. Johnston was sentenced in December to one year in federal prison in one of the largest timber-theft prosecutions in Washington history, involving more than 100 trees. He faces another hearing March 7 to determine the amount of restitution he’ll pay — that is, the value of his haul.

“The fact is, you can’t replace with a dollar amount a 300-year-old Douglas fir tree,” said Matthew Diggs, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case. “It’s like taking an antiquity.”

Experts at the hearing will certainly try, offering estimates of the trees’ worth based on their economic value in the market as well as the ecological cost of their removal. Some of the trees were located in an area designated as marbled murrelet critical habitat.

Despite his guilty plea, Johnston maintains he was wrongly accused — that the trees were on his parents’ property, not in the national forest. (Official land surveys prove otherwise, prosecutors say.)

But even he concedes that theft of trees is rampant in Washington, where thousands of dollars can be earned in less than an hour’s work.

“That’s never going to change,” he said. “There’s plenty of wood in the national forest and places they can steal.”

State and federal authorities agree the theft of natural resources, from leafy salal to massive timber, is a growing problem.

“Theft and damage to forest products have reached near epidemic proportions on public lands,” Diggs wrote in court documents.

U.S. Forest Service Special Agent Anne Minden, who is stationed in Washington, said it’s impossible to say for sure how much is stolen.

“It’s an incalculable value, but we do what we can do calculate it,” she said. “They’re somewhat priceless.” The Associated Press in 2003 pegged timber theft as a $1 billion-a-year problem.

If you have the right equipment — along with some know-how and a connection with a less-than-vigilant buyer — it’s a relatively easy crime to get away with, Minden says.

There are no cameras in the forest, no fingerprints to trace. The thieves work at night, using headlamps, radios and lookouts. Forest lands are vast and theft sites can be remote, so law-enforcement intervention is sporadic, at best. Minden said it took agents at least an hour to hike to the site of the Johnston tree theft. For Johnston, however, access was easy: The site abutted his parents’ private property. He had his own logging business, so he could bring trees down in minutes.

“Music wood” or “figured maple” is of particular concern for authorities. That’s decorative wood with distinctive whorl patterns. You’ll see it in gleaming guitars and violins. You’ll even find it for sale on Craigslist. “Looking for a buyer ASAP,” read one recent post.

In another recent case, authorities discovered 21 big leaf maple trees were stolen from state park land in southern Puget Sound. The thieves felled the trees and chopped them into blocks, taking only the parts worth selling on the black market. The rest — pretty much everything above the lowest branches — is left to rot.

Forest Service agents are dismayed to come upon these sites routinely.

“They’ve completely trashed the national forest,” Minden said.

Environmental groups also are concerned. Greenpeace formed the Musicwood Coalition after tracking the depletion of certain species of trees in Alaska. It’s a small percentage of the harvest, said Rolf Skar of Greenpeace, but it makes a difference.

“It was pretty interesting to find that out,” he said.

Much of the illegally harvested music wood comes from overseas. Gibson Guitar, for instance, paid a $300,000 penalty last summer after admitting that it may have bought illegal ebony from Madagascar.

“My guess is there were many companies, big and small, that started changing the way they were going about buying wood because of this case,” Skar said.

The way Johnston sees it, timber theft isn’t worth worrying about here.

“There’s so many trees growing right now,” he said, “that the amount of thieves, there will never be a dent in it.”