Thieves cutting birch trees in Minnesota, Wisconsin

Published 9:49 am Monday, April 3, 2017

MINNEAPOLIS — County sheriffs and state natural resource officials are trying to respond to a rash of thefts of birch trees in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Thieves are quickly cutting down the young, paper-white trees. The logs, limbs and twigs are sold to city residents who want a touch of the North Woods in their homes, according to a press release.

Chief Deputy Mike Richter with the Washburn County Sheriff’s Office in Wisconsin said birch trees have been poached in at least 15 to 20 locations in his county alone.

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“It doesn’t matter if it’s state-owned or county-owned or privately owned,” Richter said. “If there are birch trees there, they cut them.”

Conservation officer Dave Zebro of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources said thieves take chain saws to birch groves and are “gone before anyone sees them” or authorities can respond.

“You might have 100 trees in a small distance,” Zebro said. “You can clip a lot in a very short time.”

Birch thieves also are cutting down whole strands across the Iron Range of northern Minnesota, said Lt. Shelly Patten of the state Department of Natural Resources district that covers western and northern St. Louis County. The cut-down areas resemble a logging site, she said.

“There’s not a whole lot left there but stumps,” Patten said.

Scott Endres, co-owner of Tangletown Gardens in Minneapolis, said birch items are “kind of a hot item in home decor in both contemporary and traditional spaces.”

“Folks in urban areas appreciate the beauty of it and like to have a little of the North Woods showing up in their outdoor containers, as well as their indoor decor. Interior designers use it a lot,” said Endres, who said he uses reliable vendors who harvest birch in legal and sustainable ways.

Thieves are leaving holes in the northern landscape that will take at least a decade to refill with birch. The trees being taken are generally young — 10 to 15 years old — about 2 to 4 inches in diameter and about 10 to 18 feet high, often growing in secluded areas.

In Wisconsin, state, county and federal officials plan to meet soon to discuss the problem.