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Placing a dollar value on priceless trees

Next month, a federal court judge will try to put a value on something that’s somewhat priceless, trees stolen from the Olympic National Forest in the US. Source: Seattle Times

The trees in question include old-growth fir, six feet across, that laid down roots before the Revolutionary War; they include intricately patterned maple destined to become high-end musical instruments; they include cedar for shingle or shake.

Reid Johnston, who was sentenced in December to one year in federal prison in one of the largest timber-theft prosecutions in Washington history involving more than 100 trees, stole all of them.

He faces another hearing on March 7 to determine the amount of restitution he’ll pay — that is, the value of his haul.

“The fact is, you can’t replace with a dollar amount a 300-year-old Douglas fir tree,” said Matthew Diggs, the assistant US attorney who prosecuted the case. “It’s like taking an antiquity.”

Experts at the hearing will certainly try, offering estimates of the trees’ worth based on their economic value in the market as well as the ecological cost of their removal.

Despite his guilty plea, Johnston maintains he was wrongly accused — that the trees were on his parents’ property, not in the national forest. But even he concedes that theft of trees is rampant in Washington, where thousands of dollars can be earned in less than an hour’s work.

State and federal authorities agree the theft of natural resources is a growing problem.

US Forest Service Special Agent Anne Minden, who is stationed in Washington, said it’s impossible to say for sure how much is stolen.

“It’s an incalculable value, but we do what we can do calculate it,” she said. “They’re somewhat priceless.” The Associated Press in 2003 pegged timber theft as a $1 billion-a-year problem.

“Music wood” or “figured maple” is of particular concern for authorities. That’s decorative wood with distinctive whorl patterns. You’ll see it in gleaming guitars and violins.

In another recent case, authorities discovered 21 big leaf maple trees were stolen from state park land in southern Puget Sound. The thieves felled the trees and chopped them into blocks, taking only the parts worth selling on the black market.