REDWOOD NATIONAL AND STATE PARKS, Calif. — It was an unlikely crime scene: a steep trail used by bears leading to a still, ancient redwood grove. There, a rare old-growth coast redwood had been brutally hacked about 15 times by poachers, a chain-saw massacre that had exposed the tree’s deep red heartwood.
The thieves who butchered this and other 1,000-year-old arboreal giants were after the burls, gnarly protrusions on the trees that are prized for their intricately patterned wood.
Although timber theft has long plagued public lands, a recent spate of burl poaching, with 18 known cases in the last year, has forced park officials to close an 8-mile drive through old-growth forests, the Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway, at night to deter criminals. More closings are expected.
While some burls are small and barnaclelike — perfect for souvenir salt-and-pepper shakers — others weigh hundreds of pounds and can fetch hundreds or thousands of dollars per slab.
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The poachers, known locally as the “midnight burlers,” are motivated by a sluggish local economy and expensive methamphetamine habits, park officials say, and they have been targeting ever-bigger burls and using increasingly brazen tactics.
Last year, a redwood estimated to be 400 years old was felled by thieves who wanted access to a 500-pound burl 60 feet up. It was the first time an entire tree was cut down for a burl, said Brett Silver, the state park’s supervising ranger.
The burl was so massive that the thieves wound up dragging it behind their vehicle, leaving a trail of skid marks. The trail led rangers 2½ miles to the Redwood Highway — U.S. 101. They found the burl stashed beneath an overpass for safekeeping.
“How many do we have that we haven’t found?” Silver said of the poached trees. “It’s not just a property crime. It’s a legacy, like hacking up a church.”
This 132,000-acre park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is the repository of a significant portion of the planet’s remaining virgin coast redwoods, which were largely logged by timber companies. The trees thrive only along a narrow, fog-shrouded ribbon of land between the California-Oregon border and Big Sur.
The burl wood, with its complex, swirling patterns, is the result of bud tissue that has not sprouted; the park describes it as “a storage compartment for the genetic code of the parent tree.”
Old-growth coast redwoods are among the Earth’s most tenacious organisms, some living 2,000 years or more. Removing a burl cuts into a tree’s living cambium layer, which can weaken it and make it vulnerable to insects and disease.
Park officials liken the crimes to killing elephants for ivory. The most recent episode, discovered in February, involved 21 burls cut from four trees in the park’s northernmost reaches.
The park is managed cooperatively by the National Park Service and the California Department of Parks and Recreation; investigations of illegal activities are handled by about 12 law-enforcement rangers, approximately one per 11,000 acres.
These days, a tight grain of paranoia runs through places like Orick (population 357), which is near the park’s southern entrance and proudly markets itself as a “burlwood capital.” Park investigators have been among the shoppers at establishments like Burl Bill’s that sell redwood gifts — clocks, bears, bees and unfinished slabs — for $500 to $700 apiece.
“Everything here has been dead for hundreds of years,” said Burl Bill, who declined to give his real name.
Orick — barely hanging on, with only 11 students in its school — used to be a timber town, but it went into a steep economic decline when its sawmill closed in 2009. Burl poaching, said Joshua Oquist, 27, who grew up in Orick, is “a sad way to earn a living, but there is no industry here.”
Because poaching tends to occur at night off established trails, catching a thief in action is rare, said Paul Gallegos, the Humboldt County district attorney. Quantifying the value of thieves’ spoils is also difficult — and important, Gallegos said, as the value “can distinguish a felony from a misdemeanor.”