National parks face plenty of challenges from crooks determined to steal everything from cacti at Saguaro National Park to ginseng in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but a growing problem at Redwood National and State Parks takes plant thievery to a whole new level. Poaching of burls from redwood trees is destroying the huge trees, and has led to the nighttime closure of a road in the park.
According to park officials, "The Newton B. Drury Parkway at Redwood National and State Parks is being closed on a nightly basis as of Saturday, March 1, 2014. The parkway will be closed each day at sunset and reopened at sunrise. The hours of closure will be variable as the time of sunset and sunrise changes. Closure hours may also be impacted if staff is responding to other emergencies. Patrols will also be increased during this time to ensure the protection of our natural resources."
The Newton B. Drury Parkway is a 10-mile, one-way scenic drive that is described as a "not-to-be-missed alternative to U.S. 101. [It] passes through the heart of the old-growth redwood forest in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. North to south, features include numerous trailheads, Big Tree Wayside, Prairie Creek Visitor Center, Elk Prairie Campground, and a resident herd of Roosevelt elk."
Unfortunately, thieves are chipping away at that area's signature old-growth redwood forest at an alarming rate. Much of the poaching occurs at night, so the closure is a described as a proactive step toward preserving the parks' primary natural resources.
"This closure is in response to a significant increase in wood poaching crimes occurring along the parkway," a park spokesperson noted. "These crimes usually involve cutting burl and bunion growths from both standing and fallen old-growth redwood trees. The wood is then sold for construction materials, ornamental furniture, and souvenirs. This type of wood is becoming increasingly rare and the most plentiful supply is often found on park lands."
The scenic road will remain open during daylight hours, so the change will have minimal impact on people engaged in legitimate activities in the park. If you're headed for the Elk Prairie Campground in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park, the closure will not be a problem. That site is still available both night and day by taking the Newton B. Drury Parkway exit (Exit 753) off of Highway 101.
Perhaps you're not familiar with the term "burl," which can be described as "large, bumpy masses on redwood trunks that can take the shape of gnarled faces or fanciful animals." They are used by the woodworking industry to make everything from bowls to coffee tables which are sold in "burl shops" found throughout the North Coast of California. You'll find further information about burls in this park publication.
While the harvesting of burls from trees on privately-owned lands is legal, that's not the case in the park'and thieves have become increasingly bold in the years since the Traveler reported on this and similar problems back in 2008.
Burls are often located near the base of a tree, but they can also occur almost anywhere along the trunk. Last year, poachers cut down an entire, 300-year-old old-growth redwood in the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park unit just to saw off a burl that was 50 feet above the ground. In a second incident the following week, the base of a large redwood was deeply cut to remove the burl wood near the Tall Trees Trail along Redwood Creek.
As the photo at the top of this story shows, removing a burl anywhere on the tree not only destroys its beauty, it can be a fatal blow to these forest giants.
Unlike ginseng roots that poachers dig up in eastern parks and carry out in backpacks, the burls on a large redwood require a vehicle to haul away. It's hoped the reduced road access after dark can help reduce the number of these destructive crimes.
By the time this park was established in 1968, logging had removed about 90 percent of the California's original redwood forests. Protection of the few remaining stands came only after a long and difficult political battle, and at that time, few would likely have thought that small-time thieves rather than large-scale commercial loggers would pose a threat to these last surviving examples of the old-growth forest.