Busting the tree ring

How a landmark investigation unraveled a Washington timber-poaching gang.

The clearing that tree poachers call the Slaughterhouse lies in the northwest corner of Washington’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest, concealed behind the wall of hemlock and cedar that edges Forest Road 25. Ron Malamphy first visited the Slaughterhouse on a damp day near the end of winter in 2012. When he pushed into the glade, he found the scene matched the moniker. A jumble of felled bigleaf maple, chain-sawed into rough chunks, littered the forest floor, heartwood exposed to the chilly air. The most valuable wedges had been crudely hacked out, the rest left to rot. A patina of sawdust coated the moss and ferns. It looked, a federal prosecutor would say later, like a bomb had gone off.

 

Cutting bigleaf maple is generally legal, with the right permits, on private and state land in Washington. In national forests, however, protections on old growth keep the tree strictly off-limits. But in Gifford Pinchot, the law’s arm didn’t reach too far. Malamphy, who’d served as an officer with the U.S. Forest Service since 2000, patrolled the Cowlitz Valley Ranger District, a rough triangle formed by Mount Adams, Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens. His jurisdiction covered 575,000 acres — one cop, responsible for an area almost twice the size of Los Angeles. He cruised the woods alone in a Dodge pickup, inspecting meth paraphernalia dumps, checking hunting licenses, conducting traffic stops. In some ways, the job has changed little since the early 20th century, when Pinchot himself dispatched a ragged band of recruits to help a strange new agency called the Forest Service wrangle illegal loggers and miners. Everyone Malamphy met in the woods carried a gun or a knife, and usually both. Backup was hours away. In 2008, a Forest Service officer was murdered by a tree-trimmer down a remote road on the Olympic Peninsula. Malamphy was a tough customer — he had an offensive lineman’s physique, and hands that could crack walnuts. Still, he kept his Glock .40 close.

The tree poachers began showing up in 2001. Malamphy came to recognize their M.O. — the way they stripped bark with an axe to search for premier wood, the telltale teeth marks left by certain chain saws when they pillaged maple stands. But he lagged one step behind his quarry. He set up motion-triggered cameras and staked out fresh-cut sites. Nothing. The perps were like ghosts, if ghosts needed money to buy meth. They’d cruise past Malamphy’s house at 2 a.m. to make sure his truck was in the driveway before hitting the woods. Once, they messed with his brakes; another time, they loosened his lug nuts.

But now Malamphy had a lead, a good one. A tip led him to an informant, a member of the gang who had run into unrelated legal trouble and hoped to cut a deal. The first time they met, the informant pointed out the cut sites on a map. Malamphy roamed the woods for a whole damn day without seeing a stump. You must be blind, the informant said, before agreeing to personally lead Malamphy and Forest Service special agent Phil Huff to the site.

  • A bigleaf maple tree in Capitol Forest near Olympia, Washington. Tree poachers have scraped bark from its surface to reveal the quilted figure they covet, leading investigators to suspect it might have been the poachers’ next target.

    Courtesy Anne Minden
  • A recently poached bigleaf maple tree in Capitol Forest near Olympia, Washington. After cutting a tree, poachers sometimes try to conceal their work by covering the stumps with moss.

    Courtesy Anne Minden
  • Chunks of maple left as waste at the Slaughterhouse site in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

    U.S. Department of Justice
  • Ron Malamphy inspects blocks of wood believed to be poached at the Slaughterhouse, and found in the garage of Ryan Justice’s grandmother’s house.

    U.S. Forest Service photo courtesy Phil Huff
  • Former U.S. Forest Service special agent Anne Minden and measurement specialist Jeff Penman at a poaching site in Capitol Forest near Olympia, Washington.

    Courtesy Anne Minden
  • Eleanor Dormontt of the University of Adelaide inspects a chunk of quilted bigleaf maple left at the theft site in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

    Courtesy University of Adelaide

Poaching is not a problem that Americans generally associate with their own backyards. The word conjures militiamen hacking off elephant tusks, woodsmen slaying tigers in Russian wilderness. But natural resource crime is rampant in the American West, too. Caviar traders target Columbia River sturgeon, Arizona snake-nappers snatch rattlers for the pet trade, and hunters gun down bighorn sheep for their prized headgear. And it’s not only fauna that falls prey. Illegal loggers have lopped off so many redwood burls — woody protuberances that get carved into furniture — that desperate authorities shut down some California roads in 2014 to deter them. The next year, a Montana man was convicted of smuggling over a thousand trees out of the Flathead National Forest. Oregon’s Malheur, Rogue River and Willamette national forests have all been victims of timber poaching. Forest Service documents suggest that tree thievery costs the agency up to $100 million each year. And no region, perhaps, is more afflicted than western Washington.

Malamphy and Huff wandered the Slaughterhouse, snapping photos and jotting notes. Malamphy felt his anger surge. These people. No respect for the resource. Some of the leafy casualties predated the arrival of Lewis and Clark. They’d provided food and shelter for generations of flying squirrels and martens, finches and grosbeaks, elk and deer, even the imperiled Puget Oregonian snail — just about everything that walked, crawled or flew in Gifford Pinchot. They’d shaded streams, nourished and stabilized soil, sequestered carbon. Now they were all dead, and for what? A few boards, heisted from land named after the Forest Service’s founder. Now, Malamphy knew, he had a case.

 

In some ways, the story of bigleaf maple poaching starts with Carlos Santana. Yes,
that Carlos Santana — the guitar player.

treepoaching-custom-22-orange-tiger-jpg
A PRS Custom 22 guitar made of figured maple like that found in the Pacific Northwest. Spokeswoman Jeanne Nooney says: “PRS Guitars has worked closely with governing agencies and legal counsel to create a robust compliance program for sourcing wood and shipping finished goods.”
Courtesy PRS Guitars

For 160 years after the Hudson’s Bay Company established the Northwest’s first sawmill in 1828, bigleaf maple was mostly neglected. Loggers coveted the stately conifers that blanketed the Pacific Coast: Douglas fir, spruce, hemlock, cedar — straight and strong, ideal for ships’ masts and the homes springing up in San Francisco. No one paid much attention to the scrappy, broad-canopied deciduous tree that crouched along coastal streams from California to British Columbia. Bigleaf maples are pretty, sure, with palmate leaves the size of dinner plates that turn fiery gold each fall. But their wood isn’t especially durable, and their boughs shade out more conventionally valuable species. “Bigleaf maple was a weed tree,” says Jim Freed, an emeritus professor of natural resources at Washington State University. “Landowners used to say, ‘Oh, you found a bigleaf maple on my property? Well, can you get rid of it for me?’ ”

But Acer macrophyllum would not remain a weed forever. Around one in every 20 bigleaf maples contains “figure,” gorgeous three-dimensional patterns etched in its grain. There are two primary variations: Quilted maple looks like ripples on water; flame maple resembles an aerial view of a rugged mountain range. No one is quite certain why figure occurs; the best guess is that it’s genetic, or produced by environmental factors such as moisture and temperature. In the 1980s, woodworkers began to realize that figured maple looked stunning in furniture, veneer and, particularly, musical instruments. The wood’s staunchest champion was Santana, whose custom-made Paul Reed Smith guitars were topped with figured bigleaf. When Santana performed his hit “Smooth” at the 2000 Grammys, he bent wailing quarter-notes on a PRS whose luminous wood came from the Olympic Peninsula.

Before long, bigleaf maple — at least those trees boasting precious figure — became one of the most valuable species in the Northwest’s forests. A two-foot-long block could reap $500. Classified ads seeking maple cutters ran in local newspapers. Landowners hired consultants to prospect on their land. Boutique sawmills arose in logging towns.

Inevitably, the burgeoning legal trade was supplemented by the black market. Maples vanished from federal, state and county land; vacationing homeowners returned to find backyard trees mutilated. Private timber companies paid local cops to patrol their forests. In 2005, the state added maple to its Specialized Forest Products Permit, the form that Washingtonians must possess to gather evergreen boughs, Christmas trees, mushrooms and other wild goods. The paper trail, in theory, would make the trade easier to monitor. But the law was easily sidestepped, and poaching continued.

Some of the thieves, says Freed, are Vietnam vets who have renounced society and eke out a meager living from the woods. The most prolific, though, are addicts looking to make a quick buck off so-called “meth maple.” Although poachers haven’t dented maple populations, the environmental impacts can be severe: Thieves carve out elaborate road networks that fragment forest habitat, and careless logging demolishes riparian areas, including sensitive salmon streams. “The people with the gold rush mentality, those are the ones that are causing the big problems,” Freed says. “They’re not just finding a tree or two while hunting deer — they’re businesses. Whenever they catch those guys, I smile.”

Through the spring of 2012, Malamphy’s informant fed the officer information. At first, Malamphy and Huff were skeptical; their source had a mile-long rap sheet. But the tips proved accurate. The informant showed them how the gang laid moss over stumps to camouflage exposed wood, and even predicted what trash they’d find befouling one clearing: empty cans of Miller beer.

Malamphy and Huff worked 12-hour days, seven days a week, grilling a widening circle of suspects. Each witness snowballed into another, all of them eager to rat. There was no honor among thieves, Malamphy thought. It was a rough crowd — one uncooperative cutter, they heard, had been punched in the face, another choked. Some couldn’t read or write.

Three names came up over and over again: Jimmy Miller, Ryan Justice and Kevin “Moose” Mullins. The loggers, the informant said, would stow contraband in their trunks and drive to a sawmill in Winlock, a scrappy town of 1,300, where they’d show up at first light, still powdered in sawdust. The mill, called J&L Tonewoods, was owned by a man named Harold Clause Kupers. On April 11, Huff and Malamphy paid Kupers a visit.

A surveillance photograph of the J&L Tonewoods mill in Winlock, Washington.
U.S. Forest Service photo courtesy Phil Huff

When they pulled into the driveway, the proprietor emerged to shake hands. “I was wondering when you guys were going to get here,” Kupers said.

“Why would you say that?” Huff asked.

“Just because of the business I am in,” Kupers replied.

The mill owner welcomed the cops into his workshop, a garage filled with maple blocks. He seemed agreeable and friendly. The cops asked Kupers if he was buying stolen wood; Kupers acknowledged that he probably was. (Later, J&L Tonewoods’ shop manager would estimate that about eight in 10 loads were bootlegged.) But, Kupers added, he’d developed a system to trace his supply chains: Loggers had to submit a consent form, crafted by Kupers’ wife, signed by the landowner whose trees the cutter had harvested. The documents had no legal validity, however, and they were easily falsified. Malamphy later traced the address on one form to a maple-less farm. The name on another belonged to a local drifter.

Malamphy and Huff leafed through a three-ring binder filled with Kupers’ custom-made slips. The binder contained just one official state forest products permit. You need to receive a state-sanctioned form from your sellers every time you buy a load, Malamphy told Kupers.

Later that week, on Friday the 13th, the mill owner emailed Phil Huff. “I do not condone theft and do what I can to not be involved with it,” Kupers told the agent. He’d lost sleep over their conversation. He didn’t want to keep buying stolen wood, he said, but he’d do it to help. “I need to know in writing that you want me to continue to purchase product from these people,” he added. “I will keep our communication confidential. If for some reason you can not (sic) do that I will stop any dealings with them.”

When he got Kupers’ email, Huff swiftly called J&L Tonewoods. He couldn’t give Kupers legal advice, he said, nor could he tell him from whom he should or shouldn’t buy wood. The case was still under investigation, and he was an agent, not a lawyer. The conversation ended, and Kupers went on dealing stolen maple.

An enterprising poacher could hardly design a friendlier environment than western Washington. Dense forests and crenellated coastline afford cover to outlaws. In the state’s rural corners, people live close to the land, cutting firewood and harvesting salmon, deer and shellfish. The line between subsistence and theft is sometimes blurry. It’s hard to find above-board work in the woods. In 2001, over 90 sawmills operated in Washington; by 2013, just 23 still hung on.

“We’re seeing theft from out-of-work locals, people who are living hand-to-mouth, sometimes feeding a drug habit,” says Larry Raedel, chief of enforcement for the Washington Department of Natural Resources. Raedel’s 11 officers patrol an area larger than Connecticut. Every year, it seems, thieves find some odd new plant to purloin. A shrub called salal is big in the European flower industry; dried cascara bark is used as a laxative. No sooner do agents penetrate one black market than up pops another. “It’s like squeezing a balloon,” Raedel sighs.

Anne Minden has spent her career trying to puncture the balloon. Minden worked as a special agent for the U.S. Forest Service until January 2014, when she retired to open a private firm from her home in Winthrop, on the east side of the Cascades. Golden eagles nest in her backyard; cougars loiter on her porch. Minden, a Portland native, grew up hiking in the Columbia Gorge. Her desire to work outdoors nudged her into the Forest Service. Her first paid job with the agency, in 1984, entailed patrolling campgrounds at the Ochoco National Forest in Oregon, watching for campers who cut unlawful firewood, shirked their fees and tossed garbage in the forest. “I’d dig through the trash and find scraps of paper with the names of the people who dumped it,” Minden recalls. “Then I’d hand it off to law enforcement and they’d go write a ticket. There was something really satisfying about that.”

The agency eventually installed her in Okanogan National Forest (today the Okanogan-Wenatchee), 1.7 million acres of mountains and glacial lakes. Tree theft was rampant, particularly by private landowners who transgressed boundaries and extended cuts onto federal land — sometimes unwittingly, sometimes deliberately. “I think that people feel entitled, like it’s not really stealing — it’s just trees,” Minden says. “But these trees belong to you, me, all of us. The public deserves to have its resources protected.”

In the mid-1990s, as cedar and maple theft swept western Washington, Minden’s jurisdiction spread to encompass the coastal rainforest of the Olympic Peninsula. Soon she was doing stakeouts, planting tracking devices on cars and collaborating with Customs agents on fly-overs. She learned that loggers cut quilt maple across the grain and flame maple with the grain; that stolen wood sometimes became dashboards in luxury cars; that nocturnal thieves ran their chain-saw exhaust into water buckets to muffle the roar. She crossed the Cascades so frequently that she developed ankle tendonitis in her pedal foot.

By her own estimation, Minden investigated around 35 timber theft cases during her Forest Service career — more than any agent in the Northwest. Along the way, she racked up busts: Fifty-year-old John Mark Randall, a Fagin of the forest, received 18 months in prison when he was caught teaching a gang of teenagers to steal trees. Reid Johnston, who was nailed cutting maple — and a 340-year-old Doug fir — in Olympic National Forest, got a year and a day.

But arresting rogue loggers remained a long-term losing strategy. As long as mills could traffic stolen maple without consequence, cutters would always materialize to meet demand. Ending maple theft required snapping a link further along the supply chain. The problem was that prosecuting mill owners required proving that they knowingly bought stolen goods — and it was usually impossible to disprove their pleas of ignorance. (Raedel, the state enforcement chief, hasn’t brought a single case against a mill owner in his 11 years on the job.) The most crucial battle in the maple wars, Minden knew, would happen in a sawmill.

 

Harold Kupers is not the sort of mill owner you’d peg for a thief. Kupers grew up in Forks, Washington, a Peninsula town known only for lumber until Twilight linked it forever with teen vampires. Kupers is a law enforcement blueblood: His father was a lifelong employee of the Washington Department of Corrections, his father-in-law was a state patrolman, and his wife, Melinda, has worked for Corrections for a quarter-century. Kupers himself worked in a state prison for a decade; he so cherished the job that he’d occasionally be turned away for showing up too early. The bureaucracy wore him down, though, and he quit to fell trees. When Corrections promoted Melinda to a job in Vancouver, Washington, their family of five relocated to nearby Winlock. Kupers got involved in the community, lecturing at-risk youth in local schools, drawing on his Corrections experience to keep kids on the straight-and-narrow.

As Kupers gained timber experience, he grew acquainted with figured maple, and in the late 1990s he began cutting and selling legal blocks. Compared to his meager earnings as a logger, he realized, the mills were raking it in. He started a couple of businesses, selling wood online and, with a partner, directly to guitar-makers. When the partnership dissolved, he opened J&L Tonewoods with a friend named Tim. They named the company after their daughters’ first initials.

J&L Tonewoods ran a simple operation. Sellers brought 24-inch blocks of figured wood, which Kupers scanned for defects: stains, knots, woodpecker holes. He paid with checks, typically a few hundred bucks per load. Then he dried the wood in a kiln and sawed it down into book-matched sets, mirror-image pieces that, in the hands of an instrument manufacturer, would become guitar bodies fit for the stage. It was steady business: Profit margins, Kupers would say later, ran around 200 percent. In December 2011, though, the partnership split up. Kupers said he wanted to grow the business too quickly for Tim’s taste; for his part, Tim told investigators he was tired of buying dubious wood from “crackheads.”

Throughout 2012 and 2013, Mullins, Justice and Miller continued to sell maple to J&L Tonewoods. Kupers seemed to remain convinced that he was aiding the investigation, occasionally emailing Malamphy and Huff when the suspects appeared at his shop. Once he even inspected clearings with the agents, and identified grease pencil marks scrawled on stumps as Ryan Justice’s handiwork. The noose began to close around the cutters. Mullins had a couple of close scrapes: Officers tracked his bootprints to maple trees with freshly peeled bark in Gifford Pinchot and narrowly missed catching him in the act. Now it was only a matter of time.

Kupers, meanwhile, kept buying wood. In December 2013, Phil Huff traveled to Winlock to interview the mill owner again. This time, Anne Minden led the conversation. Kupers was warier than before, and seemed defensive. Minden prodded him to open up. Huff took notes, transcribing Kupers’ words as the mill owner explained again how J&L Tonewoods operated.

Rarely has an interview subject done more damage to his cause. According to Forest Service reports, Kupers described himself as “kind of a rebel,” told the agents that he “didn’t believe in” the maple-permitting laws, and said that he’d deliberately avoided learning the rules so that he could claim ignorance. Minden gave him just enough rope to hang himself. Later that day, with the details still fresh in their minds, the two agents retreated to a motel, plugged in their computers, and wrote a memorandum describing the conversation. When Huff next visited Kupers, he served him an indictment.

The prosecution of Harold Clause Kupers has its legal roots at the turn of the 20th century, when wildlife trafficking forced America to confront the finitude of its natural resources. Beaver and bison had been virtually exterminated, and rapacious plume hunters were plundering egrets and other birds for the hat industry. In 1900, Rep. John Lacey of Iowa introduced a bill that outlawed trading illegally harvested animals across state lines; President William McKinley signed the Lacey Act into law on May 25. A year later, the act claimed its first major victory, when 48 Illinois men were arrested for shipping over 22,000 ducks, quail and grouse. No longer did you have to pull the trigger to be prosecuted for wildlife crime.

The Lacey Act evolved over the years. In 1935, it was expanded to forbid trading animals taken illegally overseas. Fishermen who landed undersized Honduran lobsters, trophy hunters peddling elephant tusks, and shark fin smugglers in Guam have been prosecuted for Lacey violations. In 2008, the law received another tweak, this time to include illegally harvested wood. The next year, federal agents raided the Nashville offices of Gibson Guitars, where they seized a shipment of Madagascar ebony. In 2015, the flooring giant Lumber Liquidators pleaded guilty to purchasing wood poached from Russia. Environmentalists and lumber unions have hailed the law’s expansion, which appears to have curtailed illegal logging in some forests and coaxed American companies to patronize reliable domestic mills.

While the Lacey Act’s new provisions were reshaping international timber markets, the groundwork was being laid for their application at home. The J&L Tonewoods case took an important turn in the summer of 2012, when Ron Malamphy made a crucial discovery — not in the forest, but in the pages of TimberWest Magazine, a trade journal that ran an article about extracting DNA from lumber. Malamphy contacted the firm mentioned in the story, a Singapore-based company called Double Helix Tracking Technologies. Might it be possible, he wondered, to match genetic material from wood in Kupers’ shop with stumps in Gifford Pinchot, to prove the maple had been stolen? Indeed it might. When scientists at Australia’s University of Adelaide compared the samples, they found the pieces contained the same genes. The odds that the match was merely a coincidence were infinitesimal.

Such DNA technology isn’t merely significant in the J&L Tonewoods case; it also suggests the value of genetics in protecting timber supply chains. The Lacey Act requires companies to exercise “due care” to ensure they’re purchasing legal wood, but the phrase has no specific legal definition. “That used to just mean doing the right thing: Don’t take shipments in cash on a dock at midnight, that kind of thing,” says Chip Barber, director of the Forest Legality Initiative at the World Resources Institute. In the Gibson and Lumber Liquidators cases, however, due care was defined more narrowly; among other stipulations, the companies were enjoined to keep more meticulous records and gather better information about their suppliers. As genetic testing becomes more sophisticated, it’s not far-fetched to imagine companies routinely using DNA to confirm the origins of their timber. “This is something that’s going to be used a lot more in the future,” predicts Barber.

Whether it will be used by the Forest Service remains an open question. In January, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, introduced H.R. 622, a bill that would strip the agency, along with the Bureau of Land Management, of its policing powers and replace them with block grants to local sheriff’s departments. The bill has been blasted by sportsmen and former federal officers, who doubt that county sheriffs have the inclination or the expertise to patrol federal acres. Land Tawney, president and CEO of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, recently compared Chaffetz’s bill to “asking your dentist to do gallbladder surgery.” Minden shares those fears. “What you’re going to end up with,” she says, “is little to no enforcement of natural resource law on public lands.”

In November 2015, nearly four years after Malamphy’s informant led him to the Slaughterhouse, Harold Clause Kupers pleaded guilty to breaking the Lacey Act — the first mill owner ever found to have violated the act by shipping illegal wood across state lines. The purloined maple had gone to two companies, both of which professed ignorance: North American Wood Products, an Oregon-based purveyor, and PRS Guitars, the Maryland manufacturer that supplies Carlos Santana. Kupers had earned $499,414 after Huff and Malamphy’s first visit. The case raised eyebrows not only within Northwestern woodworking networks, but in international lumber markets. “This shows our trading partners that adding wood to Lacey wasn’t a protectionist move to exclude tropical timber in favor of American timber,” says WRI’s Barber. “It’s also a law that’s being enforced domestically.”

Federal prosecutors sought a two-year sentence, comparing Kupers, in his willingness to deal with obvious poachers, to a gun-shop owner who sold firearms to convicted felons without performing background checks. Ultimately, he was sentenced to six months at the Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan, Oregon, followed by six months of home detention and three years of supervision. He also owed the government restitution for the stolen wood, to the tune of $159,692. The cutters faced time, too: Ryan Justice received 15 months in prison; Miller got 6 months; and Mullins got 30 days. “Those guys got off pretty damn easy, is all I can say,” gripes Malamphy, who retired soon after the case closed.

It didn’t feel that way to Kupers. When I called the erstwhile mill owner this past December, he’d been back home in Winlock for a month. He spoke clearly and deliberately, in a Pacific Coast accent that rounded his vowels. Kupers’ version of the case diverged in several significant ways from the official account. He’d been an equal partner in the investigation from the get-go, he told me, and his most incriminating remarks had been taken out of context. “I assisted them 100 percent, and it totally backfired on me,” he insisted. “Before they met me, they had no knowledge of maple.”

Harold Kupers had broken the law, it was true, and profited handsomely. But it was also possible to understand why he felt like he’d been sacrificed to advance the righteous cause of forest conservation. Compared to, say, Lumber Liquidators, J&L Tonewoods was a featherweight operation; that executives at the country’s largest hardwood flooring company could escape with mere fines for breaking the same law as Kupers seemed an asymmetrical dispensation of justice — especially considering that global demand for building materials represents a far greater threat than the niche music-wood market.

I asked Kupers if he would work with maple again. The terms of his probation forbid him from owning a mill, he said. These days, he’s making furniture, wine racks and urns in his shop. He spends a few hours a week at a tavern he owns in Winlock. Most of the community, he claimed, agreed that he’d gotten a raw deal. “But still, there’s a percentage of the population that walks on the other side of the sidewalk,” he said. “And it kills me. It kills me.”

Conservation scientist Shiloh Halsey makes his way across the downed logs and abandoned chunks of bigleaf maple in the Slaughterhouse in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, site of a timber theft investigation.
Terray Sylvester

Although bigleaf maple is abundant today, it faces a threat greater than poachers. In 2010, Amy Ramsey, a forest pathologist at the Washington Department of Natural Resources, received a wave of anxious calls from landowners whose maples were succumbing to a mysterious disease. Ramsey found the same symptoms over and over again: Sick maples grew smaller leaves that turned reddish-yellow around their withered margins, and ailing trees dumped enormous seed crops in a last-ditch attempt to spread their progeny. This was dieback, an arboreal affliction that begins in a tree’s peripheral limbs and creeps toward the crown’s center, like a blood clot traveling to the heart.

Ramsey tested and rejected hypotheses: It’s a wilt disease; no, it’s a canker-causing fungus; no, it’s heart-rot. Then, in 2015, drought settled over the Northwest, and the die-off intensified. That lent credence to the most alarming theory of all. “We’re wondering if they’re the canary in the coal mine for forest change in the face of climate change,” Ramsey says. In a century, how much bigleaf maple will remain to steal?

Or perhaps the maple black market will become obsolete, its contraband replaced by reputable tree farms. Steve McMinn, founder of a Skagit Valley-based mill called Pacific Rim Tonewoods, recently teamed with Canadian researchers to plant cuttings from eight lines of maple, in hopes that the beautiful patterns are, in fact, genetic. When the trees reach around five inches in diameter, McMinn’s team should be able to tell whether figure is heritable; if it is, growing music-wood could someday be as simple as farming tomatoes. “Our goal is that this valley, in 30 years, is the region that people come to for well-tended figured maple,” McMinn says.

For now, though, the illegal trade chugs along, fueled by the twinned motives of profit and addiction. “It’s definitely still going on,” Malamphy says. “There’s too much money in it.”

On a gloomy February afternoon, I drove the winding, climbing road from Randle into Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Dime-sized snowflakes danced through the cedars. I’d come with a guide: Shiloh Halsey, conservation science director at the Cascade Forest Conservancy. We parked near a beat-up campground sign and wandered into the woods, squeezing through thickets of devil’s club and vaulting logs. Soon the canopy opened, as though the woods had been slammed by a windstorm. The maple chunks looked darker and more rotten than they’d been four years ago, but they were otherwise identical to pictures in the Forest Service reports I’d browsed. This was it, or part of it: the Slaughterhouse.

Halsey and I picked through the clearing, stooping to inspect scattered blocks and the odd snails. “These are some old trees,” he murmured, examining the widest stump. Five years ago the hardwood would have been prime habitat for owls, woodpeckers, fishers. The stump had sprouted a new cluster of head-high shoots, though Halsey doubted that any would grow into a robust tree.

Surviving maples ringed the arena like sentinels, twisted and mossy. It was hard to know how to feel: The carnage was deplorable, but we’d seen authorized clearcuts on the way in whose scale dwarfed this disturbance. If you squinted, you could imagine the site in 10 years, or 200 — the decomposing blocks melting into the soil, the prickly shrubs ceding to Doug firs, the canopy resealing itself, the forest whole. On this day, though, all we saw overhead was low sky and swirling flakes, falling with a hiss on the wet mulch of maple leaves that blanketed the clearing.  

Correspondent Ben Goldfarb writes from New Haven, Connecticut.


This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund.