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How your Christmas tree may finance the meth trade in Minnesota

The illegal trade of spruce tops and birch pole continues in Minnesota and Wisconsin, now with stronger ties to convicted felons, many with drug backgrounds. On a good night, two cutters can remove 1,000 spruce tops and clear $1,000 profit.

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Small birch trees like these, generally less than 2 inches in diameter, are cut and sold for home decorations. In some cases, the trees are being illegally cut on public and private land, increasingly by longtime criminals. Bob King / 2017 file / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — It was a moonless Thursday night in late October when state conservation officers Shane Zavodnik and Matt Frericks quietly made their way into a remote spruce bog north of Virginia, Minnesota.

Zavodnik was acting on a tip that someone was cutting and stealing spruce tree tops on state forest land without any permit and without paying for the trees.

But when Zavodnik and Frericks announced their presence and told the thieves to stand down, just the opposite occurred. The culprits jumped into a side-by-side ATV and sped off.

“Both of us could have easily been run over that night,” Zavodnik said. “Thankfully, we were standing just far enough off the ATV trail where we weren’t hit.”

Zavodnik and Frericks tried to give chase, but couldn’t catch up. They radioed for support from sheriff's deputies and the Minnesota State Patrol, but the culprits were never apprehended.

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Zavodnik said a closer inspection found the thieves had cut well over 1,000 spruce tree tops — tiny Christmas trees — valued at more than $1,000 for the cutters and likely 10 times that when the spruce tops get to stores across the U.S. where they are sold as holiday decorations. Those decorations might include some illegally cut birch poles as well.

That kind of illegal cutting of spruce tops and birch poles remains common across Minnesota and Wisconsin forests these days.

A pile of spruce tree tops, cut illegally on public land, discovered by Minnesota DNR conservation officers in a recent investigation. Contributed / Minnesota DNR free

Law enforcement officers and court documents show more people now committing the forest thefts are longtime criminals. Some have felony records, including violent crimes, and several have records for crimes related to methamphetamine.

“We put a dent in the illegal cutting last year with a lot of public attention, showing we were taking it seriously, and I think a lot of the casual cutters got out — decided it wasn’t worth the risk of getting caught,” Zavodnik said. “Now, we're dealing with more dangerous individuals. … They are basically career criminals. People without jobs. They do it mostly at night. And a lot of it is related to meth.”

When conservation officers or sheriff’s deputies investigate forest thefts, often using a warrant to make an arrest and seize the stolen trees, “we’re also running into stolen vehicles, drugs, cash … people with other warrants already out for them,” Zavodnik said. “It’s definitely become a different situation.”

So far, there have not been any violent confrontations when officers made arrests in the field or executed search warrants. But officers suspect that some criminals with ties to drugs and cash might also carry guns.

“It’s not a comfortable situation. It’s always in the forefront when you go in there, especially at night out in the middle of nowhere in a spruce swamp,” said Brent Speldrich, a DNR conservation officer supervisor in northeastern Minnesota.

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Speldrich said the decorative forest products industry just keeps growing every year, with consumer demand growing for more woodsy decorations and crafts.

“It’s a multi-million dollar industry and a part of it has this criminal element in the woods,” Speldrich said. “And in some cases they are really raping the resource.”

1,000 trees a night

Decorative arrangements that include spruce tree tops and birch poles are an increasingly popular consumer item and now part of a multi-million dollar industry nationwide. Most of the trees cut for the decorations are cut legally. John Myers / Duluth News Tribune free

On a good night, two cutters can remove 1,000 spruce tops, officers said, and clear $1,000 profit. Bigger ATVs with cargo boxes, often purchased with cash, have become the vehicle of choice for forest criminals. In one case in late 2020, Zavodnik found 17,000 spruce tops illegally cut from one location.

Officers say it’s not just a matter of cheating taxpayers or private landowners out of their rightful payments for the trees, but the illegal activity is making a mess in the woods and can disrupt forest regeneration, causing long-term ecological damage.

And the effort is detracting from other duties of the Department of Natural Resources conservation officers, which includes everything from hunting, fishing and ATV rule enforcement, to wetlands protection, cross-country ski permits and invasive species prevention.

“This (illegal cutting) happens at our busiest time of the year. From September to the end of deer season, every CO in the state is running thin. There’s never enough time to get everything done,” Zavodnik said. “And unfortunately, these guys (illegal tree cutters) like to work at night, so it just compounds our problem up here.”

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While most spruce top and birch cutters take the legal route — buying permits from county, state or federal forestry offices or paying a private landowner — the criminals are skipping the permit and permission to increase profits. Carlton County, for example, gets 35 cents for every spruce top that’s legally cut on county-managed land. But when cutters can get $1, $1.50 or even $2 for each spruce top cut, the lure of an even bigger profit margin looms large.

“In some cases, they figure they can just skip paying us and keep it all for themselves,’’ said Greg Bernu, Carlton County land commissioner.

“The permits cut into their profit. If you already have a warrant out for you for a drug crime, you probably aren’t too worried about being caught cutting spruce tops,” Zavodnik said.

Spruce tree cutting is usually done from September through November, in time for the holiday buying season. Waiting until after a hard freeze helps preserve the cuttings. But if the cut trees are kept dark and cool they can stay fresh for months. Some tops are moved longer distances in refrigerated trucks.

A decorative arrangement that includes both spruce tops and a birch pole. John Myers / Duluth News Tribune free

Meanwhile, birch poles have become a year-round decorative item, and a year-round crime, sold at brick-and-mortar stores and online. A bundle of four 6- to 8-foot birch poles — young birch trees cut when they are just a few years old and less than 2 inches in diameter — can fetch up to $89.95 on eBay, Etsy or Amazon. You can order three 21-inch “Enchanted Forest” birch poles from Menards for $14.99.

In 2020, the state of Minnesota issued permits for more than 1 million spruce tops to be cut legally, and officials say most of the multi-million-dollar decorative forest trade in Minnesota is legal and done properly. Most retailers buy their materials from reputable wholesale suppliers who buy the raw material from cutters who follow accepted forestry guidelines. (Balsam boughs and spruce tops can be cut so the tree keeps growing, although birch poles don’t necessarily regenerate as new trees.)

In 2019, Minnesota lawmakers changed an old law that applied to only balsam boughs destined for wreaths to also include all “decorative materials buyers” who handle more than 100 pounds of trees or tree parts. Buyers are required to carry a license and keep records where the trees came from, who cut them and which agency or landowner gave permissions. (Officers strongly encourage private landowners with spruce or birch to post their land, adding trespassing to the options for charges against illegal cutters.)

But the value of decorative forest products also has kept the illegal trade lucrative. And officers say it’s difficult to find many of the illegal sites — the DNR also uses aircraft to patrol remote areas — and even harder to trace illegally cut trees once they are out of the woods and in transit to wholesalers or retailers. It’s easy to forge permits or permission notes. And without evidence tracing them to a specific, illegal cutting, it’s often hard to prosecute.

“Almost impossible,” Bernu noted.

Unless, of course, officers catch the thieves in the act.

Recent arrests show criminals involved

That happened in Washburn County, Wisconsin, on Sept. 30 when a sheriff’s deputy found four men cutting birch trees on county forest land. The suspects had clear-cut a swath of young birch trees nearly 20 acres in size. Thousands of poles were stashed in trucks and trailers at the site.

Criminal complaints have since been filed in Washburn County Circuit Court against Michael Balog, Steven Turner, Bradley Kent and Andrew Mortensen, charging them with felony theft of property valued at over $10,000 and with criminal damage of property belonging to the county.

All four men have criminal records:

  • Turner, of Ladysmith, Wisconsin, has convictions for drug possession, disorderly conduct, domestic abuse, bail jumping, meth possession, resisting or obstructing an officer, theft and more.
  • Kent, of Spooner, Wisconsin, has convictions for possession of meth, bail jumping, criminal damage to property and theft.
  • Mortensen, of Trego, Wisconsin, has convictions for felony possession of meth, bail jumping, disorderly conduct and falsely obtaining prescription drugs.
  • Balog, of Cameron, Wisconsin, was charged earlier this year in Rusk County with felony possession of meth, drug paraphernalia and bail jumping. A bench warrant for his arrest was issued Nov. 30 for those crimes. He’s also been previously convicted for felony battery with intent to harm, bail jumping, resisting or obstructing an officer, and disorderly conduct. Balog was also convicted for a different illegal timber cutting case in Rusk County in February.

In April, Joshua Dewey-Dale Taylor, 27, of Solon Springs, Wisconsin, was cited for cutting, harvesting and removing forest products without a permit and operating a motor vehicle on forestry land off a developed road or trail. Douglas County (Wisconsin) Sheriff’s Sgt. Jake Engelman, who had been investigating reports of birch cutting in the area, observed Taylor cutting birch in the middle of a more than 3,000-acre parcel of Douglas County-owned forest land in the town of Solon Springs.
Taylor was formally charged in court May 5 with theft of forest items, driving off-road in a county forest and possession of drug paraphernalia. A check of Taylor’s record for this story shows various crimes, including battery.

Officers in the field say they are getting better support from prosecutors who are taking illegal forestry theft seriously and charging the cases out depending on the value of trees taken. But with a limited staff and budget in most county attorney's offices, misdemeanor or even gross misdemeanor forest thefts usually take a back seat to more serious crimes, like felony theft, drug crimes, assault and homicide.

In St. Louis County, Christopher David Stella, 37, of Embarrass, was charged Nov. 16 with a gross misdemeanor for timber trespass on state lands and a misdemeanor for having incorrect documents on the source of the timber. Minnesota conservation officer Tony Bermel found more than 700 trees cut off state land without a proper permit, valued at more than $3,000. Stella, who was convicted of similar timber theft crimes in 2019 and 2020 (both petty misdemeanors) also has a long criminal record including felony theft, felony receiving stolen property, felony burglary, domestic assault, shoplifting, DWI and more.

Also in St. Louis County, Blake Robert Buschman, 34, of Babbitt, was charged Oct. 8 with illegally cutting spruce tops on land owned by Minnesota Power. Buschman has an extensive criminal record including felony drug possession, felony receiving stolen property, DWI, obstructing the legal process, fleeing a police officer, disorderly conduct, domestic assault and felony auto theft. Buschman had just been sentenced for a previous forestry theft in March when he was ordered to pay fines and fees of just over $300. The case was sent to a collection agency.

“For the most part, now it’s not grandpa out there trying to make an extra buck in the woods,’’ Zavodnik said. “It’s people who are very familiar with the court system.”

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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