Birch tree bandits cut and run in Minnesota and Wisconsin

Thieves are illegally cutting down thousands of birch trees in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin to make a quick buck off city dwellers who love the paper-white logs, limbs and twigs in their home decor.

The thefts have caught county sheriffs and state natural resource officials by surprise over the past few months, sending them scrambling to determine how big the problem is and how to keep it from getting worse.

In the meantime, the thieves are leaving gaps in the northern landscape that will take at least a decade to refill with birch.

Chief Deputy Mike Richter with the Washburn County Sheriff’s Office in Wisconsin was among those scratching their heads when word spread that swaths of birch saplings were being felled by crooks. “And then I learned some stuff about the market,” he said.

Birch items are “kind of a hot item in home decor in both contemporary and traditional spaces,” said Scott Endres, co-owner of Tangletown Gardens in Minneapolis. “Folks in urban areas appreciate the beauty of it and like to have a little of the North Woods showing up in their outdoor containers, as well as their indoor decor. Interior designers use it a lot.”

Endres said he uses reliable vendors who harvest birch in legal and sustainable ways. “It’s sad” that thieves are taking the timber illegally, he said.

Law enforcement officials in Minnesota and Wisconsin said it’s difficult to quantify how many birches have been lost to the trend. The trees being targeted are generally young — 10 to 15 years old, about 2 to 4 inches in diameter and about 10 to 18 feet high, often growing in secluded areas.

The thieves take chain saws into birch groves, said Dave Zebro, conservation officer with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “You might have 100 trees in a small distance,” he said. “You can clip a lot in a very short time.”

It’s difficult to catch the crooks because they “go in and grab a couple hundred trees in a couple hours and they’re gone before anyone sees them or we can respond,” Zebro said.

In Wisconsin, state, county and federal officials will meet next week to assess the problem. “We’re going to try to educate one another and see what we can do collectively to minimize any illegal harvest,” Zebro said. “The more we talk, the more we’re hearing what we thought was just a northwestern Wisconsin issue is becoming much bigger. I hate to guess how big of an issue it is.”

In Washburn County alone, birch trees have been poached in at least 15 to 20 locations, Richter said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s state-owned or county-owned or privately owned,” he said. “If there are birch trees there, they cut them.”

Douglas, Bayfield, Sawyer and Ashland counties also have reported thefts, Richter said. “That’s about a quarter of the state,” he said.

In Minnesota, “whole stands are coming down throughout the Iron Range,” said Lt. Shelly Patten of the state Department of Natural Resources district that covers western and northern St. Louis County.

The scoured areas resemble a logging site, she said.

“There’s not a whole lot left there but stumps,” she said. “To be honest, I didn’t even know what the thieves were doing with it.”

But she and other law enforcement officials have long been familiar with thieves illegally cutting spruce tips and boughs that are in demand during the winter holiday season.

As long as there’s a market, thieves will cash in, she said.

Richter figures “unsophisticated, small-time thieves” who have a daily drug habit to support are responsible for most of the clear-cutting. Many of them formerly relied on stealing scrap metal. “They’re grabbing and stealing anything they can convert into money,” he said.

So far, a half-dozen people have been charged with birch tree theft in his county. “But there has to be a lot more out there, because there’s a lot more missing product out there,” he said.

In Minnesota, Patten said one person was issued a citation, and charges have been recommended for three others in St. Louis County. Another case is under investigation.

Harvesting birch is perfectly legal in some areas, with the proper permit from state officials or permission from a private owner. The permits allow state officials to dictate how much and where trees can be cut in an effort to sustainably manage the timber, said Doug Tillma, DNR forest timber sales program supervisor in Minnesota.

“Unregulated harvest or theft jeopardizes the long-term supply of that resource,” he said. It also reduces forest biodiversity.

Losing young birch hurts deer and moose that browse on young forests, said Paul Dubuque, DNR silviculture manager. And young twigs, buds and seeds are an important food source for songbirds, including redpolls, pine siskins and chickadees, he said.

And for many Minnesotans, a mature stand of birch trees is the perfect backdrop for a hike in the woods, he said.

“If they harvest all the available small birch in an area, it would take 10 to 15 years to grow it back,” Dubuque said. “The birch in those areas will disappear in those areas for a time.”

Regenerating birch can be a challenge because it has to compete against fast-growing aspen and aggressive shrub species like hazel and mountain maple, Dubuque said. “It’s important to manage that young population of birch. Otherwise, it takes a future crop away from the forest.”

As news about the birch tree thefts has spread, residents are taking notice, calling in tips to local and state officials in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

One Washburn County resident noticed a truck and trailer broken down alongside the road but didn’t realize the load of birch was suspicious until after news of the timber thefts broke, Richter said. By that time, the truck was gone, and soon it was discovered that the birch was stolen off private property, he said.

Until authorities figure how to discourage the bandits, Mother Nature may put a crimp in the illegal business.

Richter said once the sap starts running, the birch trees may be less marketable because the paper bark is more susceptible to peeling off.

“But once it freezes again, it’s going to be back on,” Richter said. “And it could be a bigger problem next year.”