Wisconsin birch trees being axed by thieves

MILWAUKEE — People with axes and chain saws are plundering parks, forests and private land in Wisconsin’s Northwoods to cut down thousands of white birch trees.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources held a meeting late last week for law enforcement agencies, county foresters and others to address the issue, the Journal Sentinel reported. A story documenting similar activity in northern Minnesota, too, appeared last week on the Outdoor News website. And, it appears, the incidents are driven by the same thing.

Natural resources department warden David Zebro said that many of the trees are sold to decorate homes, businesses and weddings.

“It appears to be all market-driven,” Zebro said. “The ornamental market people are paying a lot of money for these types of birch trees. We didn’t see this type of issue a year or two ago, but it’s certainly here now.”

Five arrests have been made in Washburn County this past winter, including a man who admitted he was in the area to illegally cut down birch trees but decided instead to steal a generator from a cabin.

While it’s legal to harvest trees in the state by property owners or people with permits, no one has permission to take the white birch.

“It’s a smooth bark. It looks clean and it doesn’t look like dirt being brought into your house,” Winter Woods manager Ed Schmocker said. “It’s been a problem as far as people taking things they shouldn’t. We tell them if they transport the birch they either need a permit or a letter from the landowner.”

Natural resources forest ecologist Colleen Matula said cutting the birch trees down negatively affects the environment. She said those trees are home to a variety of species, and many animals use the bark as nesting material.

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