Oct. 10 2019 12:00 AM

A tree theft last year led to a massive wildfire.

When most people want a tree, they go to a nursery and buy one. When some other, less scrupulous people want a tree, they go a national forest and steal it. And sometimes, they kill thousands of other trees in the process.

A story published on the Yahoo! Lifestyle website reports that, according to a Department of Justice indictment, two thieves went to the Olympic National Forest in August of 2018 intending to steal wood from big-leaf maple trees. After chopping them down, they expected to sell them, as they had several times before. But then they noticed that one of the felled trees had a wasp’s nest in its branches.

Their solution was to set fire to the nest. The flames spread quickly, however, and their attempt to douse the fire with water bottles failed. The resulting forest fire consumed their stolen trees along with the surrounding 3,300 acres. The blaze, not extinguished until the following November, cost approximately $4.5 million to contain according to the indictment papers.

People who steal trees from forests are called “tree poachers” — and it’s not as uncommon as one might think. Wood from big leaf maples, highly prized for its wavy “figured” pattern, can bring in a tidy profit. Guitar manufacturers often use it to produce unique-looking instruments.

This kind of illicit logging is nothing new, according to the story. It apparently dates back to the early 20th century when the National Forest Service was first established and certain trees were placed under federal protection. According to High Country News, poachers took a toll on National Forests in Washington state in 2001. And a 2007 report from the Seattle Times estimates that hundreds of maple trees are stolen from area forests each year.

“There’s usually some connection to illegal drugs, whether it’s a small baggie of methamphetamine found in a suspect’s pocket or, in one case, a makeshift meth lab in the back of a pickup,” the article said.

The federal indictment alleges that the men had been illegally felling maple trees in National Forests for months, selling the wood to mills for thousands of dollars. It’s unclear just how the thieves were able to steal so many maple trees from the parks with no one noticing what they were up to — but foresters frequently find the remains of trees that have been hacked to pieces by poachers littering the forest floor.

The U.S. Forestry department is developing a DNA testing program for mills to enable them to identify illegally obtained wood and refuse to purchase it.