From today’s Seattle Times:
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.
Read the entire story here.