By: Joanne M. Haas/WDNR Bureau of Law Enforcement
The 2018 case of the sawed-off burls started at a three-way intersection of a tip from the Wisconsin Woodland Owners Association to the state conservation wardens, a state forester's conversation with a victimized woodland owner and a trespass complaint to the Waupaca County Sheriff's Department.
Several months later, the case of the couple seeking online profits was solved by a WDNR wardens-forester team with the help of a tape measure, photographs, partners and a dose of luck. Add to that a realization, Wis. Department of Natural Resources Conservation Warden Kaitlin Kernosky says, that this type of timber theft likely happens more than most think.
"Thanks to GPS systems and online information, it is easy for people to figure out who owns the land and
She's not the only one.
THE CASE BLEW IN WITH THE MARCH WINDS
It was in March 2018 when a member of the Wis. Woodland Owners Association emailed the wardens' public information officer concerning a timber theft of burls from standing trees on private land in Waupaca County. "It had to be more than 1 person using a ladder and chainsaw. Unbelievable!" she wrote in her email message that the public information officer passed on to the warden team which serves the county.
The WDNR Bureau of Law Enforcement public information officer likely got that theft tip the same day WDNR Forester Ben Baumgart heard about it. It was a birthday bash for a landowner that Baumgart has known for the 18 years he has been serving Waupaca County. As any party guest would do, Ben worked the room and ended up having a conversation with another landowner guest who turned the conversation to burls - or, make that the lack of what was once there. And he had the photo evidence to prove it.
"It was something that I had never seen before," Baumgart said of the sawed-off theft of burls.
He wasn't the only one.
What are burls?
To the forester, burls or cankers are the result of fungus that invades the tree and results in these growths. To the observer, they look like bowling balls hanging off a tree. But, to these bandits - they were deposits that could lead to case payments. How so? Carved into bowls or high-end veneers or countertops and more home décor items.
As Baumgart told the landowner, the trees have been compromised with these deep cuts that may likely lead to premature death - or most likely - falling victim to a wind and breaking off. "And a lot of these were done near trails."
The theft, safety threat to trail users and harm to the environment linked the forester with the area DNR conservation wardens to solve the complaint. "We work a lot together - we help each other," he said of the inter-agency teamwork.
However, the team first had to come together
SYNERGY! TEAM FORMS FROM DIFFERENT DIRECTIONS
The wardens were provided the information before they knew Forester Baumgart also had been told about this. When Lt. Ted Dremel tapped Warden Kernosky to take the case based upon the citizen's tip, the first question was to pinpoint the alleged illegal activities.
"We knew it had occurred in this county, but didn't know where," Kernosky said.
Eventually, they learned that Forester Baumgart had met a landowner who matched the tip. And, this same aggrieved landowner also suspected trespass violation and contacted the county sheriff. It was the sheriff who provided the linchpin by providing the same information to the DNR wardens and forester. The team formed, and a plan hatched.
THIEVES IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Next stop, the landowner's property. Warden Kernosky, Lt. Dremel and Forester Baumgart walked the property with the landowner.
"The wardens know how to interview and gather information. I know the species and what to look for on the trees," Baumgart said. In this case, the three species in play were ironwood, bitternut and maple. "These trees had been cut deep - half of the diameter was gone. The nutrients would still be carried in the remaining half but there are very good chances the trees would snap."
Warden Kernosky says the response by the landowner was understandable.
"He was pretty upset," Kernosky said. "He showed us several locations where the burls had been chain sawed from the tree." The trio took photos, measurements and GPS coordinates.
The team spread out and found more burls and more places where burls had been removed. Then, Warden Kernosky spotted something. "This burl would have been unique - likely five feet high and about 10 inches wide. Real tall and real skinny," she said. "This was a key piece to helping us solve this."
Along the property walk, the landowner told the team no permission had been given to anyone to trespass or to cut his trees.
Next stop, the internet. Kernosky surfed the internet looking for places where woodworking items are sold, or burls are offered to artists and furniture makers. Another key find for Kernosky.
She found a posting offering burls for sale and couldn't believe the location of the seller. "What are the odds that this person lives less than a mile from the landowner's property, and that these burls are the ones?"
She was about to find out.
The team tapped two individuals to pose as burl buyers to contact the couple to see the products. They knew what things to look for - and they spotted it. After their visit, Kernosky and another warden, John Schreiber, went to the home. "The couple had a woodworking shop and were carving some.
After a conversation that went the route of denial to admitting they cut the burls with permission, to they did take the burls, the two wardens were led to the couple's workshop. With the help of photos and a tape measure, the two wardens tried to ascertain which ones of the roughly 50 that filled the shop fit the measurements and photos of the 10 stolen burls.
"It sounds easy, right? It wasn't because some had been carved already so the shape was different," Kernosky said. But she spotted the long, skinny unique burl and that was the start of the confirmation they were in the right place. "I can't imagine where all those burls came from."
Eventually the couple confessed to entering the property, using a chainsaw and shoving the 10 burls into backpacks and a sled. And the rest of them in the workshop? "I can't imagine where all those burls came from."
While this case was pending, the sheriff's department got another complaint from another landowner who spotted one of the couple on the land without permission. But the individual stated the purpose was to check out the fishing pond.
Kernosky said the second landowner determined nothing had been stolen or cut, but chances of it being a scouting for burls hike remains.
Burls can be sold raw and modified. Smaller burls can be made into decorative bowls. Larger ones can be used for countertops, mantles and more home furnishings. "It can be very high-end stuff," she said.
This started out with the complaint or tip, then the forester who bumped into the landowner. Internet search and then we got a little bit lucky they posted I online. They lived within a mile - it was unique,' she said.
They had cut the burls and tried to resell for monetary value.
Yes, wardens do timber theft cases, as does Baumgart and his colleagues. "More recently, we've had the theft of the paper birches in the Kettle Moraine and in northern areas. Timber theft cases take time - but this was a first."
The wardens filed criminal timber theft charges and the county sheriff filed one count of trespass.
The case was adjudicated in Waupaca County Circuit Court on May 6. One of the two in the couple was found guilty through a plea agreement of theft, possession of stolen property under $2,500 resulting in a fine of $267.50 and was ordered to pay a $400 restitution back to the property owner. The second of the couple had all charges dismissed against the individual.
This story is important. If you are finding things, report it. And the wardens and foresters have the expertise to try and solve these.
Does Baumgart think the word is out among Waupaca County landowners? "Oh, yes, it is amazing how fast word can spread."
And chances are the search for missing burls has become a new habit.
Joanne M. Haas is the public information officer with the Bureau of Law Enforcement of the Wis. Department of Natural Resources.
Anyone with information regarding natural resource violations may confidentially report by calling or texting: VIOLATION HOTLINE: 1-800-TIP-WDNR or 1-800-847-9367. The hotline is in operation 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Trained staff relay report information to conservation wardens.