A 40-year-old man from Aurora has been charged with illegally chopping down 1,200 birch trees on state forest land valued at more than $3,400, part of a growing problem of birch trees being illegally felled to feed a burgeoning home decor market.
The complaint filed in St. Louis County District Court alleges that David Lawrence, with the help of two other men, spent about three days in the woods cutting the small diameter birch poles that measured between 2 and 6 inches across.
Lawrence said he sold the poles to a man in Wisconsin, where authorities have dealt with illegal birch cutting for the past couple years.
"I think they've depleted a lot of the resource from northern Wisconsin, so it's trickling over to Minnesota," said Shelly Patten, conservation supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
"I think we're just seeing the beginning of it, so we're preparing for seeing this on a bigger basis in the future," she added.
The DNR also periodically contends with people illegally cutting the tops off spruce trees. But that tends to happen seasonally, around the holiday season. And birch trees are often more readily accessible in the forest.
The market for birch poles used in home decorative arrangements has exploded in recent years, Patten said.
"The folks that are cutting it, it's fast, easy money for them to make quick cash," Patten said.
It is legal to cut birch in some areas with a proper permit. But Lawrence did not have a permit to take the birch.
The two men with him were not charged because they are Native American, and were cutting in a treaty territory where tribal members have hunting, fishing and gathering rights.
Patten said since the poles are small and cut into 8-foot lengths, they're easy to conceal. Unlike loggers, big trucks aren't needed to haul them away.
"I think the big help is going to be the eyes and the ears of the citizens out there, helping us to catch these folks," she said. "People need to call in when they see something suspicious."