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Desperate Poachers Hack Burls From Iconic Redwoods for Cash

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California’s iconic redwoods are being gnawed apart, seed by dormant seed, by jobless or drug-addicted, desperate people using chainsaws to hack off coveted knobby growths at the trees’ base and selling them to furniture makers.

The growths, called burls, are redwoods’ primary means of reproduction. The poaching is not a new practice but it’s at a new level. It has gotten so bad that the National Park Service announced on February 28 that it is closing the scenic Newton B. Drury Parkway every night as of Saturday March 1.

“Illegal redwood poaching impacts one of the most sensitive resources in Redwood National & State Parks, a designated World Heritage and International Biosphere Reserve, injuring live trees that can live up to 2,000 years old, but also causing related impacts to scenic qualities and threatening endangered species,” the Park Service said in a statement. “Most of the illegal poaching occurs at night. While regrettable, this closure is a proactive step toward preserving California’s and our nation’s irreplaceable natural treasures.”

Redwood burls sell for $ to $3 per pound, and are known for their unique swirling or mottled grain. Besides cutting off access for would-be poachers, the highway closure may also prompt consumers to question where the burls making their furniture came from, authorities said. There are legal sources, such as trees on private land, though supplies are limited.

“Woodworkers prize the burls, which tend to cluster near the base of the tree but can appear farther up the trunk,” reported National Geographic. “They like the swirling grain patterns, particularly the circular shapes called ‘eyes,’ and turn the burls into furniture, bowls, clocks, and knickknacks.”

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To their credit, poachers used to target fallen redwoods, Jeff Bomke, a spokesperson for the Redwood National and State Parks, told National Geographic. But once those were gone, the poachers turned their attention to standing redwoods. The iconic trees, reaching 400 feet tall, are mainstays of forest life as well as being sacred to the Yurok and other tribes.

“Our traditional stories teach us that the redwood trees are sacred living beings,” the Yurok Tribe says on its website. “Although we use them in our homes and canoes, we also respect redwood trees because they stand as guardians over our sacred places.”

But a scourge of both unemployment and drug addiction have proven too much for the beleaguered beings in the parks. The gash left by burl removal from a live tree is actually a “wound that can let in insects or disease,” Bomke told National Geographic. But the desperate don’t care, as law enforcement park ranger Laura Denny told the Associated Press.

Recently Denny investigated the theft of a burl whose cutting left an eight-by-10-foot scar, she told AP. It took the thieves weeks to cut the burl into slabs that weighed more than 100 pounds each and drag them by all-terrain vehicle. Denny found the dealer and learned that he had paid $1,600 for eight slabs that would go for $700 each, to earn a total of $5,600, AP said.

"When I interview suspects, that is the [reason] they say: their addiction to drugs and they can't find jobs," Denny said.