Judge to weigh true cost of old-growth timber theft
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U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Washington
(Click on photo to enlarge) An investigator stands on the stump of a tree felled in Olympic National Forest by timber thief Reid Johnston.

By Rob Ollikainen

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TACOMA — A federal judge this week will try to put a price tag on the trees that a Brinnon logger admitted to poaching from Olympic National Forest.

Reid B. Johnston, 41, pleaded guilty to willfully injuring and committing depredation against U.S. property in November.

He received a one-year prison sentence in December for the theft of 102 fir, cedar and maple trees in the Rocky Brook area of the Dosewallips drainage between May 2009 and January 2010.

A restitution hearing is set for 9:30 a.m. Thursday in Tacoma.

Judge Robert J. Bryan will determine the amount of money Johnston must pay to make up for the timber he stole, said Emily Langlie, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Diggs and Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Seth Wilkinson wrote in a pre-hearing memorandum that the ecological value of the tree Johnston destroyed is $242,375.

Since restitution was limited to a maximum of $120,000 under the plea agreement, the government is seeking $120,000.

Among the trees Johnston fell was a giant Douglas fir with an 8-foot diameter that was more than 300 years old.

The wood was cut into blocks and sold for the production of such musical instruments as guitars and cellos, a U.S. attorney's spokeswoman said.

Old-growth trees like those Johnson cut are considered critical habitat for the northern spotted owl and the marbled murrelet, both federally listed as threatened species.

“How do you put a monetary value on something that's over 300 years old?” said Donna Nemeth, Olympic National Forest spokeswoman.

Diggs and Wilkinson will ask the court to apply a “trunk formula” method to quantify the loss of the trees.

The method, which is recommended by the International Society of Arboriculture, multiplies the basic value, condition and location of trees to determine an appraised value.

“In summary, there is no 'market' for stands of old growth trees on publicly protected lands,” Diggs wrote in the memorandum.

“Using a fair market valuation ignores the ecological, aesthetic and cultural values,” he said.

“Basing a restitution order on the number of board feet would not restore the Forest Service to the pre-theft state.

“The only effective way to return the Forest Service the fair equivalent of what was taken and destroyed by the defendant is to award restitution based on replacement value.”

Chris Dowling, Olympic National Forest timber and vegetation program manager, said there have been several timber thefts in the forest, “but usually not of this magnitude of old-growth trees.”

“Often, you hear of an individual tree here and there, but this is pretty significant,” he said.

Dowling said the poaching of old-growth timber undermines Olympic National Forest's effort to manage timber under the Northwest Forest Plan.

Forest management includes the thinning of selected trees to protect forests from fires, insects and diseases while increasing biodiversity.

Olympic National Forest thins about 1,000 acres of forest per year.

“It's a pretty big effort in this forest,” Dowling said.

The area where Johnston poached the trees is “just up the road” from a stand that Olympic National Forest is actively managing.

It is surrounded by a patchwork of second-growth trees that are being managed to “create some connectivity” to the surrounding old growth.

“This one action really isn't in isolation,” Dowling said.

Foresters consider poaching of trees — whether they are old-growth or from private or state timber stands — one of the biggest crimes facing the Peninsula's timber land.

Some samples:

-- In November 2010, the Department of Natural Resources' Law Enforcement Services investigated the theft of up to 20,000 pounds of pine boughs clipped from a 3-acre mixed stand of white pine on state trust land.

The thieves got away. The direct cost was estimated at about $5,000 at a wholesale price of 25 cents per pound.

But since many of the trees would not survive after having most of their branches hacked off, the lost timber could amount to an additional $19,500, officials said.

-- In August, 2010, a Quilcene man — John Mark Randall, then 50 — was sentenced in federal District Court to 18 months in prison for his part in the theft of maple trees from Olympic National Forest.

During the hearing in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, he also was sentenced to three years of supervised release and $8,808 in restitution for conspiracy, damaging government property and theft of government property.

Prosecutors said he hired young men to poach high-quality maple trees from the Penny Creek area of the Hood Canal Ranger District of Olympic National Forest, Langlie said.

The wood from such trees is used in making musical instruments.

Both Justin and Travis Reeves, who are brothers, were sentenced to one year of probation, 50 hours of community service to be completed within one year with a fine waived and $2,202.00 restitution.

Andrew Post was sentenced to one year of probation with a fine waived and $2,202.00 restitution.

The late National Forest Service Officer Kristine Fairbanks, who was murdered while on duty Sept. 20, 2008, near Sequim, was the lead investigator on this case at the time of her death.

-- In August 2007, state Department of Natural Resource officials said cedar theft costs the state hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.

-- Poaching in Olympic National Forest in areas of Blyn east of Sequim, Lost Mountain west of Sequim and Lords Lake southwest of Quilcene in February 2007 led to rangers considering banning some firewood permits.

Cutters were taking not only downed trees, but also standing Douglas firs more than a century old, rangers said.

Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5072, or at rollikainen@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: March 03. 2013 5:32AM
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