On a rainswept mid-January morn this year, Mischa Cowles, a park ranger on Harstine Island in south Puget Sound, made a disturbing discovery: 21 formerly full-grown maples, many of them who’d lain down roots before World War I, had been cut to the quick and ground to shreds near Jarrell Cove State Park.
The environmental crime was committed by timber thieves -- many of them feeding a serious methamphetamine habit -- in search of an elusive and most lucrative prize, the so-called “music wood” embedded deep in the heart of the big-leaf maple. Of all the forest products out there to be plucked, the big money is in majestic maple.
Working without permits or with fakes ones, these cunning back country bandits sell the gorgeous wood to local buyers in Mason, Grays Harbor and Pacific counties, who then ship the rare and decorative material to such guitar-making giants as Gibson, Martin, and Fenders, where it is used for the backs, sides and necks of high-end electric and acoustic guitars, costing $8,000 to $20,000 and more. Santana’s own guitar, in fact, was crafted from Northwest fiddleback maple.
A small block of music wood can fetch these nefarious timber wolves as much as $100. A single big-leaf maple, if well-endowed with the precious wood, can yield $5,000 from a buyer. Not bad for a long night’s work mucking about in a deep and muddy ravine.
Operating in forested terrain so impenetrable that machetes are sometimes employed to hack their way through, maple rustlers usually work in the dead of night, destroying resources that cannot be replaced. The tools of their trade: a beat-to-hell pickup, headlamp, goggles, a wheezing chainsaw, and plenty of energy drinks. Armed and dangerous, and over-amped on meth, they are cause untold millions of dollars in damage to Washington state forest lands. Not only are they exceedingly difficult to catch, but they make a mockery of the forest harvesting permit process, which law enforcement officials agree is a farce.
In this week’s feature story, Seattle Weekly takes a close look at these maple tree-mooching meth heads, and what, if anything, is being done to hunt them down and bring them to justice.