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Burl thefts hit Oregon forests

Shut down the spur roads.

That’s the message one environmental group is trying to get to the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon after one of its members stumbled upon a redwood tree on a spur road off Peavine Road and another along the Smith River from whose sides burls had been carved out and stolen.

“So far, most media attention has been focused on burl removal from ancient redwoods in Redwood national and state parks in Humboldt and Del Norte counties in California,” Steve Pedery, the conservation director with Oregon Wild, wrote to forest officials earlier this month. “Forest Service lands also contain many centuries-old redwoods, and these trees are now also subject to this same destruction.”

Burls are the gnarled mounds that bulge from the sides of the older redwoods to propagate new trees. And they’re highly prized among wood carvers — the vast majority of whom would never cut one out of an ancient tree.

Whomever carved out the burl from a relatively younger tree in Curry County was so deep in the woods they even had to cut down neighboring trees to get their vehicle out.

“This confirmed our fear that they’d start looking at Forest Service land where there is less of a law enforcement presence,” Pedery said.

Tina Lanier, district ranger with the Gold Beach Forest Service office, was unable to be reached this week.

If the spur roads can be closed — with gates, felled trees or boulders — it might provide a deterrent to vandals. The roads, he said, could easily be turned into hiking paths or allowed to grow over.

California redwoods have recently been in the news after burl thieves carved enormous chunks out of the trees. Investigators visited wood-carving artists in the county to see if they’d purchased burls or heard anything regarding the vandalism. Their work has led to the arrest of two people in connection with those crimes.

“California really stepped up,” Pedery said. “They closed some roads at night, and investigative teams are taking casts of some of the carnage.”

Carnage is the right word, forest officials agree.

The bulbous burls occupy a great deal of the base of a tree, and cutting them out prevents them from cloning trees that can be thousands of years old.

Redwood trees in California are protected under national and state park regulations in addition to state recreation area rules. The U.S. Forest Service, which oversees the bulk of the land in Curry County, doesn’t have the financial wherewithal to pursue the criminals.

“It may be time for the forest service to do a more exhaustive survey of where the redwoods are,” Pedery said, noting that the burls stolen this month were taken from trees in the northernmost reaches of redwood territory. “These trees don’t have any statutory protection other than the forest service.”

Trust the buyer

News of the California burl poaching has gone worldwide, said Dave Jenkins, owner of YMT Woodworks in Harbor.

“They’re saying, ‘Oh, look at these people — the (methamphetamine users),” Jenkins said. “A methhead doesn’t have the energy to cut a 10-foot burl off a tree. If they have a chainsaw big enough, they’re going to sell it to buy drugs.

“And some guy that’s 65 years old? He didn’t go out and cut a burl out of a tree. He cut that when he was 40 and it’s been sitting around.”

Jenkins said he relies on people he knows in the industry to get his wood, or goes through suppliers that deal in exotic woods. Where they get their wood, however, is tough to say, he said.

Usually local sellers are those who have been in the logging industry for decades, cut down a tree on their property or are selling common, local woods such as myrtle, cedar and maple. And redwood is still milled in California.

“I bet they were in the logging industry and knew that burl was there for the last 12 years,” he said of the burl cut from the tree on the Winchuck. “That’s how I look at it.”

Most woodworkers will ask where a seller’s wood came from.

“It’s tough,” Jenkins said. “They come in selling redwood, I’m going to ask him where they got it. Solicitors: ‘You got a catalog? Got a card? Any samples?’ They say ‘no,’ I’m not going to buy from him. I’m going to call the cops.”

Vandalism on the rise?

In California, trees are located in state and national parks and in national recreation areas, providing additional protections. The trees at the end of Peavine Road and in another grove on the North Bank Chetco Road are merely under the protection of the forest service.

The old spur roads, while overgrown in many places, are easy enough to access — and criminals know their activity can be hidden from tourists driving the main roads to see the redwoods.

“We feel this kind of vandalism is not just more likely to occur because some redwood trees with burls are on forest service lands, but there might also be an increased risk because forest service lands don’t carry the same general public awareness and identity redwoods do on the more often identified and publicly-known redwood national and state parks,” Pedery said.

He fears the vandalism could spread, as well.

“Coast redwoods (here) represent a particularly ecologically significant resource,” because they are on the northern- and eastern-most edge of the species’ range, he wrote. “(If the range) were affected by any aspect of climate change, one might expect any changes in these areas to be seen in these Forest Service lands first.”

If the spur road off Peavine Road is closed, it would also protect a striated lily that only grows in the wet forests of Northern California and Southern Oregon. There are seven of those plants in one spot on that road.

“The Forest Service should not wait to see if there will be more damage before taking necessary action and preventive measures,” Pedery wrote.

After gating the roads, and when money becomes available, Pedery’s organization suggests the forest service survey the trees, block the spur roads and then encourage other legal, recreational uses in the forest.

“We need to increase the public awareness and enjoyment of them,” Pedery said of the majestic trees. “Unfortunately, redwoods are a long way from most population centers.”

Anyone with information regarding the vandalism of the trees and theft of the burls is urged to call the U.S. Forest Service in Gold Beach at 541-247-3600.

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