Two northern California men have been charged with damaging old growth trees in the Redwood National and State Forest. The arrests are the first in response to a recent increase in illegal poaching of redwood burl.
You’ve probably seen countertops or furniture made from redwood burl. The richly colored, swirling grain is prized for its beauty and can fetch a hefty price. A coffee table or bar top can sell for thousands. That kind of money — combined with a largely unregulated market for the wood — has proved irresistible to poachers in the northern California forests.
“They’ve been sneaking into the park, quite often at night, and with a chainsaw they cut off that burl material,” said Marshall Neeck, chief ranger at Redwood National and State Parks.
Neeck explains that burls are bumpy growths around the base or on the sides of redwoods. And they’re a key part of how the giant trees reproduce.
“When a redwood tree is put under stress, quite often what happens is that it regenerates from that burl material,” said Neeck.
Depending on how extensive the cutting is, redwoods can survive having the burls cut off. But it scars the tree and can leave it susceptible to insects or disease. Neeck says these trees can be more than a thousand years old.
“And there’s not that many of them anymore," he added. "In fact, the park is home to probably 40 percent of the existing world population of those large old growth redwoods.”
A few months ago, the park started closing a scenic highway at night in an effort to discourage poachers.
The increase in redwood burl poaching is alarming to Sam Hodder, who heads the San Francisco-based Save the Redwoods League.
“To have the precious few trees that remain be hacked up by thieves in the dark of night is a travesty,” said Hodder.
Save the Redwoods was founded in 1918 as wholesale logging of the redwoods raised concerns about their survival. Hodder’s group is one of three nonprofits that recently offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of redwood poachers. Hodder says the visual impact of the damage done to these iconic trees is appalling.
“It looks like someone sawed a tabletop right off the side of the tree," he said, "a big, kind of gaping scar.”
Not all redwood burls are illicit. Many are legally taken from dead trees or old stumps. Others come off private timber land. But there’s no legal requirement for paperwork to prove burls were harvested from legitimate sources, which makes it easy for poachers to sell their stolen goods for quick cash. Neeck says that puts the onus on the people who sell redwood burl products.
“So, somebody rolls up in a pickup truck and it’s full of burl in the back, it’s up to the burl shop owner to determine where that came from,” Neeck said.
And many do. Jim Parodi owns Artisan Burlwood in Berkeley. He says nearly all his redwood burl come from trees or stumps that have been long dead. If someone showed up in his yard trying to sell freshly-cut burl, he says, he’d be very suspicious.
“You’d have a pretty good idea if it was green wood sliced off a tree," Parodi said. "I mean you’ve got a pretty good idea that, 'OK, where’d you get this?'”
Lorin Sandberg agrees. Sandberg runs a company named Burlwood in Scio, Oregon. He says he’s always insisted on a paper trail.
“Y’know, if I don’t have proof of where I got this burl, I’m just as guilty as the guy that took it out of the woods,” Sandberg said.
In the absence of any regulations, it’s up to concerned consumers to ask questions and do their best to make sure their beautiful table top didn’t come from late-night thieves carving up national treasures.