Illegal poaching of resources from national parks has a long, unsettling history. In Great Smoky Mountain National Park, it’s ginseng poaching. In Petrified Forest National Park, it’s thievery of fossilized trees.
Out on California’s North Coast, though, the poaching is being conducted on a larger -- much larger -- scale. Instead of being content with ripping off something that’s not very obvious – like ginseng – audacious backcountry bandits are cutting down Redwood National and State Parks’ namesake redwood trees.
Yep, that’s right. Crooks are stealing priceless parts of American heritage, and what is even more disconcerting is that they are taking the very things that the parks were created to protect.
“It's a huge problem,” Laura Denny, a Redwood park ranger who has investigated the thefts for the past six years, told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Peter Fimrite. “To get the wood out, they knock down vegetation and rip up the hillsides. They leave behind garbage and oil from their chain saws…and the wood they take is used by other species to survive.”
The swath of stolen wood runs for more than 160 miles from Willits, California, in Mendocino County all the way up the coast to Crescent City, in De Norte County. Humboldt Redwoods State Park, Richardson Grove State Park, and Standish-Hickey State Recreation Area in Mendocino County have all been hit, Fimrite reported. The pinched lumber is used in redwood shingles, siding, flooring, and all manner of artisan wood carvings.
Tree poaching first became a problem in Northern California as the lumber mills started to close up shop in the 1990s; the number of mills is said to have been cut in half since the early 90s. With high unemployment, poaching lumber for income has become more prevalent in the region.
Since 2006, at least five men have been arrested for wood theft, Fimrite reported. The logs that were poached were an astounding 750 years old.
"Given enough time and motivation, they will take multiple bolts (sections) off a single log," Redwood Superintendent Steve Chaney said. "They either float them down a creek to where they can pick them up, or they haul them out by hand to the nearest place they can get to with a truck or in some cases an ATV."
Ranger Denny said one poacher actually made a raft out of the wood he had cut to float it out of the park.
"He was spotted by a ranger and took off, leaving the wood," she said. "It turned out to be one of our typical suspects – wearing a wig."
Rumors abound of men making as much as $15,000 from poaching redwood.
"It's alarming, and it's a shame," Ranger Denny said. "It seems like civilization and the impacts on nature keep growing and growing and growing. All we have are these islands of hope. We are trying to protect a very small ecosystem so that people will still have a place to go to get away, but illegally taking wood just puts more pressure on our natural environment."
But there is some cause for hope. Congress has taken up a bill – HR1497, the Legal Timber Protection Act – that will make it illegal to sell illegally harvested wood in America. More information on this bill can be obtained at this site.