Timber plundering plagues forestlands

This week, a federal court judge will try to put a value on something that’s somewhat priceless: trees stolen from the Olympic National Forest.

SEATTLE — This week, a federal court judge will try to put a value on something that’s somewhat priceless: trees stolen from the Olympic National Forest.

The trees in question include old-growth fir, 6 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.

All of them, the U.S. Attorney’s Office says, were stolen by Reid Johnston, the son of a prominent family that had laid its own roots alongside those same trees on the Olympic Peninsula decades ago. Johnston 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. He faces another hearing 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 U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case. “It’s like taking an antiquity.”

“Theft and damage to forest products have reached near epidemic proportions on public lands,” Diggs wrote in court documents.

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

If you have the right equipment it’s a relatively easy crime to get away with, Minden says.

There are no cameras in the forest, no fingerprints to trace. The thieves work at night, using headlamps, radios and lookouts. Forestlands are vast and theft sites can be remote, so law-enforcement intervention is sporadic, at best.