Guitar-Wood Crime Spree The Western Big Leaf Maple tree is at the center of a web of crime in the Pacific Northwest. That's because its wood is prized by guitar makers.
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Guitar-Wood Crime Spree

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Guitar-Wood Crime Spree

Guitar-Wood Crime Spree

Guitar-Wood Crime Spree

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The Western Big Leaf Maple tree is at the center of a web of crime in the Pacific Northwest. That's because its wood is prized by guitar makers.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

That's the sound of a 3,000-dollar acoustic guitar. It's so pricy because the instrument is made out of Western Big Leaf Maple. The wood is so priced for its complex beautiful grain that poachers are cutting down Big Leaf Maples in the forest of the Pacific Northwest.

Here's reporter Austin Jenkins. He begins his story at the scene of the crime.

AUSTIN JENKINS: Officer Chris Rankin with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources stops his truck in a dirt road and gets out.

(Soundbite of truck door closing)

JENKINS: He's brought me to a parcel of state forestland near Tacoma, Washington aptly named Maple Hollow. This is where several months ago, a pair of Maple thieves struck.

Mr. CHRIS RANKIN (Department of Natural Resources, Washington): What they actually did was they blazed the trail through the woods here, and cut down small trees as they went to get down to the theft site.

JENKINS: Rankin leads me down this narrow, crudely cut road in the forest to a clearing.

Mr. RANKIN: This is one of the theft sites right here. As you can see, this is where the Big Leaf Maple was standing.

JENKINS: All that remains is a massive stump about five feet across and a pile of sawdust. The lower third of this hundred-foot hundred-year old tree has been cut up and removed. The rest of this Maple, the leafy branchy part lies rotting in wetland ravine. Rankin says these thieves knew what they were looking for.

Mr. RANKIN: This has some very good pattern in it here. You can see the grain in the wood. If you can imagine, you know, this particular grain being on a guitar that would be very desirable.

JENKINS: Desirable and valuable. A pickup-load of this so-called Figured Maple can fetch several thousand dollars in the black market. Why the high-dollar value? The rare and highly sought after lines, whirls and ripples are coveted by instrument makers and fine woodworkers. Statistics on Maple tree thefts in the Pacific Northwestern are hard to come by. But police and the timber industry say it's a significant problem on public and private forestland.

Patty Case is a spokeswoman for Green Diamond Resource, a Northwest timber company, she says virtually every Maple tree on Green Diamond's 300,000 acres in Washington State has been checked by would-be thieves.

Ms. PATTY CASE (Spokeswoman, Green Diamond Resource Company): And what means is that someone will come in and take a chunk of bark out in order to see the grain underneath the bark. And determine whether it's valuable as music would.

JENKINS: The thieves scout the trees by day, then use the cover of night to harvest them. Cutting the choice wood into two-foot blocks. The industry standard for a making a guitar. It's a crime that takes some skill and know-how, but police say that thieves are mostly just trying to support a drug habit.

Mr. DONNY VAN ORMAN (Wood Mill Owner): It's just rampant, just absolutely horrible. And there bold, you know.

JENKINS: Donny Van Orman runs a wood mill in Elmo, Washington. For more than 29 years, he's supplied Cedar and Figured Maple to big-named guitar makers around the world. He's also a crusader for tougher laws to crack down on tree thieves. He likens them to poachers who kill wild animals.

Mr. VAN ORMAN: It's like killing a bear and only taking the bladder, you know what I'm saying? What a shame. What a shame. And it's not renewable. I mean, we won't live long enough to renew it.

JENKINS: Police say Maple theft in the woods of the Pacific Northwest has been a problem for the last five to eight years. It's not necessarily getting worse, but it's also not getting better. The concern is if it continues, the trees will eventually be gone.

(Soundbite of guitar playing)

Mr. MICHAEL PATRICK SMITH(ph) (Guitar Salesman): The thing about Maple that's awesome is that it has a very bright tone, but it still carries a lot of richness.

JENKINS: Michael Patrick Smith is a veteran guitar salesman in Olympia, Washington. He says a Maple-backed guitar has a special sound.

Mr. SMITH: So it's got a lot of definition, but a very rich tone at the same time, you know.

(Soundbite of guitar playing)

JENKINS: But it's not just the sound of Maple, it's the look.

Mr. SMITH: A lot of people go for the look. They just freak out over the - how beautiful the Maple is.

JENKINS: The back of the guitar Smith is playing looks like it's on fire. He calls it Flame Maple, another term is curly. The streaks of red and yellow look almost iridescent.

Mr. SMITH: It doesn't even look real. It's that's beautiful.

JENKINS: Major guitar makers say they only work with trusted wood suppliers. But the reality is there's no way to trace the lineage of a piece of Big Leaf Maple once it leaves the mill. That's why police say they have to focus on catching the thieves or those who buy directly from them.

For NPR News, I'm Austin Jenkins in Olympia, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

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