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Bill by State Sen. Mike McGuire seeks to make redwood burl poaching a felony

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Poachers who target the knobby burls on old-growth redwood trees could face stiffer punishment if they are caught under legislation introduced this week by a North Coast lawmaker.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, is proposing to make burl poaching a mandatory felony crime punishable by jail time and a fine of up to $10,000.

“These poachers are butchering healthy, ancient, old-growth redwoods,” said McGuire, who compared the practice to killing elephants for their tusks.

Redwood burls are crucial to the health and propagation of the majestic trees, forming at the base of trunks to shoot forth new saplings and roots. They also protect trees by forming protective layers over damaged wood.

Burls also are used to make a range of products, including tables and other furniture. That has created a lucrative market for the wood and drawn the attention of poachers, who use chainsaws and other devices to carve the prized wood away from the trees, with no regard to the damage the practice causes.

Retailers online Tuesday were selling redwood burl tables for prices ranging from several hundred dollars to more than $10,000.

“I don’t know of one park with old-growth redwoods that hasn’t experienced burl poaching,” said Liz Burko, superintendent of the Sonoma-Mendocino Coast District for California State Parks.

That includes at Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve near Guerneville, where burl thieves years ago damaged one of the park’s most recognizable redwoods dubbed the Icicle Tree.

California only recently started tracking the number of burl thefts because of the increasing frequency of incidents, according to McGuire’s office, which reported a total of 106 cases between 2010 and 2014 in state and national parks.

But that’s only the reported cases. McGuire said there are likely many other burl thefts that aren’t yet known because of the remote locations where the incidents occur. He noted that poachers sometimes have to clear-cut their way through the forest just to get to the desired trees, causing yet more damage to the ecosystem.

“I liken burl poaching to killing an elephant,” McGuire said. “You see egregious cases of hunting and killing elephants for ivory. The same thing can be said for shaving burls off California’s old-growth redwoods.”

Only 5 percent of the world’s remaining old growth redwoods still stand along the coast of Northern California, according to Save the Redwoods.

Most cases of burl poaching are handled as misdemeanors with no jail or fines. A rare exception was a 2013 case involving two Humboldt County men who were convicted on felony vandalism charges after they were caught stealing what authorities described as a massive amount of burl from trees in Redwood National and State Parks near Eureka. An anonymous tip led to the discovery of the burls at a local shop.

One of the poachers, Danny E. Garcia of Orick, was ordered by a Humboldt County Superior Court judge to pay over $11,000 in restitution fines and sentenced to 700 hours of community service. Garcia’s one-year jail sentence was suspended.

Advocates of Senate Bill 288 say the specter of stiffer punishment would be a deterrent to other would-be poachers. The bill, which was co-authored by Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg, is supported by district attorneys in Humboldt and Del Norte counties.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemo​crat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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