Timber theft in the Little Pend Oreille National Wildlife Refuge did not go unnoticed. Through persistence, good observation, cooperation between federal agencies and the willingness to take appropriate action, justice was served for one timber thief in eastern Washington.
Federal Wildlife Service Patrol Captain Kelly Knutson and a US Forest Service agent worked together for four years to catch and stop a large-scale timber thief from continuing to steal wood off federal land. Their persistence finally paid off in October 2019, ending a pursuit that started with just a hunch in the summer of 2015.
The information from this article came from the website of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of the Interior. I’ve summarized the information here, but the original article was published at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Open Spaces Blog (fws.gov) on May 12, 2021.
Any summer drought conditions result in an abundance of dead trees that seem to be ripe for the picking to a timber thief. However, proving wood theft is tough. There are legal means to cut and harvest dead trees for firewood. The problem is the thieves know this. There are also too few law-enforcement officers in the woods. In this area, for instance, there is only one officer per million acres, and that makes for good odds for the criminals. Read on to learn how two officers’ persistence led to an arrest and conviction for timber theft on public land.
Although all cases are different, in this case, we were given a detailed step-by-step process used to catch and convict the thieves.
The summer of 2015 brought record droughts to the forests of the Selkirk Mountains in eastern Washington. More than one million acres burned that summer.
That same summer, Patrol Captain Kelly Knutson, a Federal Wildlife Officer, noticed a truck loaded with firewood for sale parked regular in a Safeway parking lot. He suspected the wood might have been harvested illegally since most wood is sold commercially instead of straight off the truck. In any case, the situation was worth monitoring.
By December 2015, there had been a rash of timber thefts in the Little Pend Oreille National Wildlife Refuge. On four occasions, someone had cut and removed large trees from the refuge. Twenty large trees were missing, both dead and green trees. Knutson thought they might come back for more, so he became even more vigilant.
Knutson did not have to wait long. Soon he spotted a truck driving down one of the refuge roads. After witnessing multiple driving infractions, he stopped the vehicle and asked if they were cutting firewood. The intruders claimed they were just picking up fallen wood they found by the side of the road. When asked about other tire tracks in the area they quickly volunteered that the tracks might be from their boss and provided the boss’s name and phone number. He wrote them a ticket for driving without a license and sent them on their way.
Later, Knutson remembered that the truck he had stopped was the same one that he had seen in the summer, parked in the Safeway parking lot, loaded with wood. He checked the boss’s phone numbers against some firewood ads and found matches on Craigslist and newspaper ads. The company, “Oxbow Firewood,” was selling wood all over northeastern Washington and Idaho.
This was no small logging company looking to make a few bucks from cutting timber off their own land. Knutson would need more help.
Knutson decided to get that help from the U.S. Forest Service, long-standing partners in dealing with timber thefts. It seemed trees had also been taken illegally from Colville National Forest. Now, they just had to connect Oxbow to the timber thefts.
A series of breaks and actions from March to October 2016 led them to information and proof of theft that brought the court conviction:
- On March 31, 2016, the Forest Service in Colville received a tip of people stealing large amounts of firewood from the national forest. The callers lived nearby and had watched the thieves coming and going all winter with many loads of wood. Following up on that call, Knutson drove to the area and discovered approximately 30 trees cut in an area high in the mountains. The trees were mostly live. This made the situation even more serious. It confirmed suspicions that Oxbow was cutting large numbers of live trees.
- Then, another caller left a message with the Forest Service, claiming to be a former employee of Oxbow. The caller left details of the firewood theft scheme, trucks involved and areas of recent cutting.
- Knutson set up a camera on a site the tipster had mentioned. To his surprise, he got many pictures of the suspects cutting, loading, and removing green trees from U.S. Forest Service property.
- A few months later, in July 2016, a federal magistrate judge issued vehicle-tracking warrants based on probable cause. Officers found one of the vehicles parked overnight with a load of wood at a local Walmart, and they installed a tracking device. The next day a two-member team of U.S. Forest Service officers tracked the vehicle into Colville National Forest.
- Later that same week in July 2016, Forest Service fire crew members came across people cutting a large number of green trees in a remote, un-roaded area. One of them drove off, to evade the fire crew, but one stayed. He was the Oxbow boss and owner.
- Three months later, in October 2016, a federal search warrant was issued for the Oxbow business. Forest Service ands Federal Wildlife Officers served the warrant and found ledgers showing the number of cords cut and deliveries made.
When the officers interviewed the Oxbow boss, he confessed and identified all locations of wood theft across multiple counties.
Three years later, in October 2019, in federal court the Oxbow boss pled guilty to a plea agreement for the Theft of Government Property and Damage to Government Property on a U.S. Wildlife Refuge and U.S. Forest Service lands. Restitution to the government was $36,620, a three-year parole, and an additional fine of $6,000.
This case shows some typical situations found in nearly all timber theft cases and ones that should be on the minds of all timber owners, whether private landowners or those who represent the government to protect public lands. We’ve said these many times before, but it is worth repeating.
- Neighbors: Forests are often large, remote areas and not well-traveled. That makes them easy targets for theft in plain site. Let neighbors know who you are and how to get ahold of you. They can be your eyes and ears about anything suspicious that is happening on your land.
- Follow up. Make sure you follow up on any information you do get, whether from neighbors or anonymous callers. It shows the person who is calling that you take their observations seriously and that will encourage them to continue to talk to you. Even a false alarm today, may be the real thing next time. You don’t want to cut off the flow of information.
- Keep Tipsters Anonymous. Most people who report suspicious activity want to remain anonymous. Be prepared to follow up with actions that will give the proof directly to you and not just come out as hearsay in court proceedings. Setting up a camera is a great way to get clear proof of any actions taken.
- Document. Document any conversations and unusual activity, even if nothing comes of it right away. Be observant. Noting that a truck full of wood is parked in a Safeway parking lot every summer is important information to store in your mind for continued observation. Be trustworthy but be observant as well.
- Taking Action is a Win whether or not you Win in Court. The financial payoffs often are relatively small compared to your real losses. Generally, the thieves are small-time operators and won’t be able to pay large fines anyway. Judges are more likely to just give you the value of your timber without additional fines for your effort. But you will be making a statement to potential thieves that you take theft seriously and that will be worth its weight in deterring future cases.
- Be persistent. Finally, persistence pays off. A case is seldom built on one incident where thieves are caught red-handed and courts are anxious to gain restitution for landowners.