A recent rise in burl thefts within Redwood National and State Parks is intensifying investigations of local wood merchants, while a bill introduced to the California Legislature last week proposes gnarly punishments to deter would-be thieves, even as sentences for nonviolent offenses are lessening statewide due to a recent voter mandate.
Burls are nodules important to reproduction that are typically found at the base of old growth redwood trees, which fetch big money on the global market as decorative items and furniture. Millions of dollars worth of burls have been hacked and dragged out of Del Norte's public lands over the years, with more than 70 burls poached from ancient trees in RSNP since 2011, according to a tally by parks officials.
Legislation introduced last week by state Sen. Mike McGuire would supersede the Proposition 47 mandate that property thefts valued under $950 be charged as a misdemeanor, and make it an automatic felony to steal redwood burls of any size, punishable by imprisonment and a $10,000 fine.
"These trees are national treasures," McGuire said.
His proposal puts a bullseye on poachers in Del Norte and Humboldt counties. Also in its crosshairs are the roadside wood shops in Hiouchi and Orick where park rangers have been investigating inventories for stolen wood. At least one massive and illegally taken burl was discovered at a Del Norte store last year, leading to the conviction of two Orick men for felony vandalism, Danny Garcia and Larry Morrow.
Garcia was fined $11,200 along with 700 hours of community service and four years of probation, he told the Triplicate this week.
The local burl shop paid $1,600 for the roughly 10 feet by 9 feet mass he sawed out of an old-growth redwood, a hunk likely worth more than 10 times that much to a reseller, Garcia said.
Redwood burls fetch eye-popping sums online and at wholesalers across the globe. This week a double tier redwood burl table listed for $31,750 on Ebay.
But for many, these things are priceless.
"Those old growth redwood forests and the trees themselves, they are a spiritual component of our planet. They have been here for so long, and they have existed for thousands of years. To deface or destroy these monuments from the past is just beyond comprehension, how someone could even do that," said Redwood National Park Superintendent Steven Prokop.
Extracting burls, usually by way of a chainsaw buzzing through the night, exposes the butchered tree to disease, pests, sterility, toppling over and death.
Garcia said his motivation for committing a crime that generated national outcry was plain and simple: money.
"I did what I did. I cut that burl. Maybe I went overboard on it," he said. "The way I look at it is that the parks system has taken everything from us. We have no rights to nothing. Our resources have been taken. We can't access the beach or take any wood off the beach and that was a lot of people's livelihood. That's how they made their money. And now there's nothing."
Of some 2 million acres of old growth coastal redwood forest that grew along the California coast in 1850, less than 100,000 acres remain. The vast majority of these trees were felled by commercial loggers. Today some 40,000 acres of old growth is protected within the parks system.
"We are not aware of any additional burl theft activity since last spring, following the arrests that we made," Prokop said.
"It's difficult, but it's not impossible to investigate. We were able to link the theft of the burls that were taken in the past year to individuals that stole the burls and then attempted to sell the burls to local vendors," he said.
Since then, local wood shops have been regularly visited by law enforcement rangers, with the owners being asked to prove where the burls came from.
"They're crunching us," said James Simmons, a commercial fisherman and owner of Wagon Wheel Burls in Orick. "They come down here with the thought that everybody is a criminal and that pisses me off," he said.
As a result of the crackdown, Simmons won't buy wood from people who just drive up to his shop anymore, he said.
"You've got to be careful about it because it could be stolen, and I don't play that game," he said.
Park rangers came into his store three times last year to look around, he said. Other burl business owners reported more confrontational encounters, when hands stayed resting on gun holsters, harsh words were exchanged and wood of disputed origin was seized.
"We used to get 99 percent of our wood off of the beach. It was all salvage. Now you have to get it from a private landowner - if you can find it," Simmons said.
It's illegal to take wood of any kind out of the parks, including beaches, according to acting chief ranger Greg Morse.
"You can collect wood on the beaches, but only for the purposes of making a fire there," Morse said.
A tip line was established in the last year so the public could easily report crimes within the parks at 465-7353.
"We also have a reward from the Save the Redwoods League and the Redwood Parks Association," Prokop said. "It's a reward for information leading to the conviction of anyone caught stealing burls in the park. And we've been getting a number of tips from the public, which we appreciate."