Thieves hacking down majestic trees to support drug habit

SHELTON, Wash. - Thieves in Mason County are hacking down majestic old maple trees and stealing wood from the heart of the trees - and much of the stolen wood is winding up in the hands of unsuspecting music lovers.

The tree poaching has become so rampant that the Sheriff's Office now has a designated deputy who patrols the forest trying to prevent thieves from cutting down trees that have been growing for many decades.

Just like a fine wine, the aged wood from the center of a decades-old maple can be used in the handmaking of a violin.

Ben Barnes, an Olympia violin maker, imports his wood from a reputable dealer in Europe. But often buyers of violins and guitars have no idea they're purchasing stolen merchandise. And the crime scene is deep in the forest.

"Maple is often used for musical instruments - people often call it musicwood," says Mason County sheriff's deputy Jason Sisson.

Sisson says thieves recently hacked down about two dozen majestic trees near Shelton to make a quick buck.

He showed KOMO News the hacked-up remains of the trees.

"This is a perfect example of a section of wood where blocks have been harvested out of it," he says.

What poachers are looking for is old wood with a wavy grain and desirable characteristics from the heart of a maple tree.

"They're only going to cut the best portion of these logs," says Sisson. "They want the best. The rest goes to waste because they can't sell it and that's all they're in for."

Thieves can illegally sell one poached maple for thousands of dollars.

"Oftentimes it's used to support drug habits," says Sisson.

He says he has seen the crime of wood poaching skyrocket - paralleling the rise of rural drug use.

"It's overall become a bigger money-maker for the bad guys and more dangerous for us," Sisson says.

The thieves want the fast cash for a quick hit - but it will take years for local forests to heal.

Sisson says in many cases, tree poaching is considered a felony - and a conviction can lead to jail time.
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