Birch thieves leaving mark on Douglas County forests

Saplings are being cut down and smuggled from the woods to create increasingly popular decorations.

File: Birch trees_Douglas County.jpg
Small birch trees are being harvested from Douglas County forest lands illegally, county officials say. (Bob King / 2012 file / Duluth News Tribune)

Birch theft is becoming an issue again in the Douglas County Forest.

Thieves are illegally harvesting birch saplings that are smuggled out of the woods and sold as decorations.

According to the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, the violators try to avoid attracting attention by cutting in remote locations, during odd hours and using quiet cutting tools.

"They're actually going in there in the middle of the night and cutting these trees down,” said Mark Liebaert, Douglas County forestry committee chair. “They'll find where they are. They want to be close to the road. They'll bring a crew in and cut down that acre of birch and they'll be out of there before anyone knows they were in there."

It was a big issue about four years ago, and it recently became an issue again in the last few months, said Jon Harris, Douglas County director of forestry and natural resource.


Four years ago, the issue was occurring throughout the northern counties in Minnesota and Wisconsin, where the white birch is a native species of the Great Lakes.

"In the grand scheme of things, it's just hurting the resource when people are out there cutting down these little stems of birch that's going to prevent them from growing into mature trees one day,” Harris said. “That's the biggest issue there. We are seeing an increase in it here in the last few months."

Harris said other public lands and private lands have also been hit.

The cost to Douglas County is theoretical, Harris said. He said the trees taken are typically 3-7 years old, but wouldn't be harvested until the tree is about 65 years old. Today's value for a harvestable white birch stand is about $800 per acre, he said.

"We're not getting anything for those stems,” Harris said. “They're stealing them. They're taking that future tree that 65 years from now the county would be getting paid for."

The Forestry, Parks and Recreation Department manages nearly $4 million annually in timber sales from Douglas County Forest lands.

"It's a black-market deal and it's pretty common place," said Mark Liebaert, chair of the Douglas County forestry committee.

The saplings are sold for use as decorations, everything from lighted branches to white birch sticks that sell for $10 or more each, according to a search on the internet.


"It wouldn't be an issue if there was not a market for it," Harris said. "People wouldn't cut it because they couldn't sell it. This market's really grown quite a bit and northern Wisconsin, because we have so much birch up here, it's gotten very popular up here and we're known for supplying it."

County officials are hoping to enlist the public’s help to stop the thefts.

With so much public land in the county and limited law enforcement capabilities, it's helpful when someone who sees it happening just gives the Forestry Department or sheriff’s office a call, Harris said.

"If someone's out there and seeing this, I would say one, leave the area immediately, and two, pick up the phone and call us, just to report it," Harris said. "Once that birch is in a vehicle and driving down a road, it's very difficult for law enforcement to prosecute these people. They want to catch them in the act, while they're doing it."

To report a suspected theft, contact the sheriff’s office at 715-395-1230 or the forestry department at 715-378-2219.

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