Image: Mike Kane

Death came to this place, and it left sated. Limbs lie in heaps, twisted and broken, grim reminders of what once thrived here. What little that’s still upright is withered and snapped in half and will surely fall before long; if life returns, it won’t be to these standing corpses. When the mist descends it resembles smoke, and it hangs heavy over the bloodless massacre.

Yet these casualties were just collateral damage, all that stood between a monster and its prize. And when the monster claimed that prize it left something behind, something that clung too tightly to the ground to ever be ripped away. It’s flat and smooth and round, as wide across as a man lying down. One day not long ago it held greatness aloft; today it marks the spot where a titan fell.


Richard Hughes was hunting along the Dosewallips River drainage in the Olympic National Forest when he discovered the stumps. It was early October 2007, deer season had just gotten under way, and the ground was slick with rain-soaked leaves. When Hughes wasn’t bobbing and weaving through the mature trees that dominate the landscape, treading lightly to keep from spooking his prey or snagging a boot on an exposed root, he clambered over the husks of fallen logs that had long since begun to crumble and sink into the dirt. And then, without warning, the forest just opened up.

In a crowd of giants, an absence of height is remarkable. You can walk for miles here on the eastern slope of the Olympic Mountains and not see the tops of the trees unless you look straight up; a sort of highway hypnosis sets in as you pass one living column draped in a blanket of moss after another, after another, after another. So when Hughes came upon the stumps, raw and exposed, their smooth, honey-colored surfaces practically gleaming amongst the underbrush, they were impossible to miss. And the forest floor was littered with the wooden stubble. By Hughes’s estimate, between eight and 10 truckloads’ worth of timber had been felled.

The national forest is protected land, but occasionally the United States Forest Service will allow logging companies to bid for the right to “thin” overgrown areas—usually for fire prevention purposes—and at first Hughes thought he was looking at the site of one of those so-called timber sales. He lives in the nearby town of Brinnon, making his living by buying and selling logs, so the possibility that he’d missed out on what looked to be a decent-size haul had him steamed. 

But as Hughes poked around the scene he noticed evidence of a different scenario. First, there were no flags designating the area as a sanctioned cutting site. And some of the stumps were covered with moss—not moss that had grown there, but chunks of it that had been placed there, ever so carefully. Then there were the tire tracks. This particular part of the national forest borders private wooded land, and deep ruts in the mud cut a path toward that property. Based on their considerable width and depth, Hughes guessed they belonged to a skidder, a hulking logging tractor with an oversize claw used to clutch felled trees and drag them out of logging sites. These trees, he was sure, had been stolen. And they had been so close to the boundary line—in some cases just a few feet into federal land—that even with that heavy, loud machinery, the phantom tree fallers could have been in and out before anyone but Bambi noticed.

Hughes didn’t report what he’d found, though. If those trees had been cut down illegally—and it sure looked like they had been—he didn’t want to be the one to run to the feds and tattle. Of course, that didn’t mean he wouldn’t tell someone. Brinnon is a town of fewer than 800 people, and secrets like this don’t stay secret for long.

 

Had Hughes walked about a quarter mile directly south of those stumps in the national forest, he would have run into a Douglas fir that was exceptionally massive, even compared to the behemoths that surrounded it. So tall was the needled sentinel—by some estimates more than 130 feet—that you could pick it out in an aerial photograph of the forest. But it wasn’t just its size that made that tree unique. It was its knack for survival. “If you went out looking for a tree that would have been its contemporary,” says Dr. Jan Henderson, a retired U.S. Forest Service ecologist, “it would be hard to find one.”

Image: Mike Kane

The tree was born in fire. In the 1980s, Henderson and his research partner, Dr. Robin Lesher, spent a decade piecing together the fire history of northwest Washington and concluded that the forests burned at least five times, dating back to the early fourteenth century. The third of those wildfires swept across most of the eastern slope in 1668, leaving the land black and smoldering. In the ashes of that scorched earth, almost two centuries before white settlers would come to the area, the tree took root.

Douglas fir is a pioneering species. The conifer, which can live more than 800 years and grow upwards of 250 feet tall if undisturbed, thrives in open conditions and mineral-rich soil, both of which can be found in great abundance after a fire. As a result, it’s typically the first to colonize a recently burned forest. Of course, the one thing in short supply after a fire are trees to repopulate the land. So the seed that gave birth to this particular Douglas fir, no bigger than a grain of rice, would have had to travel miles—possibly dozens—on the wind to burrow down into the dirt north of the Dosewallips River. 

The young sapling wouldn’t have long to settle in before it would face the first of four assaults on its life. As perpetually soggy as the peninsula is now, it’s hard to imagine it ever being dry enough to burn. But all it takes is 30 days without rain, a strong east wind, and a source of ignition (most likely a lightning strike) to reduce entire forests to barren fields of black, limbless snags. Just such a perfect storm struck 33 years after the Doug fir began its life, and with much of the land still recovering from the fire of 1668 and therefore virtual kindling, the peninsula—not to mention most of Western Washington—erupted in flames once again in 1701. Between two million and four million acres of land were consumed. 

Wildfires of that size can rage as hot as 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit (just north of the melting point of gold), so a 30-year-old like our Douglas fir would have, without question, been incinerated had the fire come too close. But by some stroke of luck—maybe the wind shifted at just the right moment, maybe the tree was so isolated that it had no neighbors to pass the fire along—it was spared. Henderson sums it up succinctly: “It was probably just his day to win the lottery.” 

Once the fire subsided, a riotous, almost violent, period of unfettered growth would have begun. Other species, like western hemlock, western red cedar, and maple, planted themselves alongside the Doug fir and elbowed each other for room. Green returned to the land, in the form of needles and leaves and vines. And for the better part of the next two centuries the resurrection continued. The Doug fir, in particular, shot to the heavens. But while it grew up, it also grew out, its limbs unfurling to give it a conical profile reminiscent of a Christmas tree. More important, though, it suited up in a thick, deeply rippled layer of bark that would come in handy later. Because while luck saved the tree in 1701, it would take genetics to do the job the next time.

 

The Logger’s Landing Restaurant and Lounge is a modest wood-paneled joint 15 minutes north of Brinnon, in Quilcene. If the name doesn’t hint strongly enough at who makes up the majority of its clientele, the sign out front—which incorporates illustrations of an old two-handled, crosscut saw and the face of a massive tree stump—should. Here, in January 2008, stories of Richard Hughes’s find in the national forest started to spread.

Those felled trees were newsworthy for more than just the fact that they’d been dragged from federal land. They were maple, a species that’s been the source of considerable controversy for more than two decades. The grain in an occasional maple—some buyers peg the number at roughly one in 25—will grow in a distinct pattern of tight ripples. Some call the look figured, others quilted. In either case, the wood is so rare and so striking that it’s in high demand among the makers of electric guitars and violins. And, not surprisingly, they pay a high price for it; a piece of this so-called tonewood that’s no bigger than two feet long, a foot and a half wide, and two inches thick can fetch upwards of $500.

Given the relatively small amount of work necessary to acquire it—an experienced logger can fall a tree, cut it up, and pack it out of the forest in less than an hour—tonewood has become a popular source of income for those feeding a drug habit. And whether they harvest trees from public or private land, they rarely do it legally. “It’s all tweakers, meth heads,” says one log buyer on the peninsula who fields calls at all hours of the night from desperate men trying to unload pickups full of the stuff. He’s so fed up with the direction that the industry has taken that he oftentimes considers getting out of the game. “The only reason I’m still doing it,” he says, “is that it’s the only way I can make a buck.”

For years the tree had stood just out of reach, taunting Reid Johnston from the other side of a line he couldn’t see but had to have known was there.

Poaching got so bad back in the mid-2000s, particularly in Grays Harbor, Clallam, and Jefferson counties, that the Washington legislature added maple to a list of “specialized forest products” that require a permit to harvest anywhere in the state. Lieutenant Matt Stowers, a deputy in the Grays Harbor County Sheriff’s department who helped craft the amendment, can’t quantify how effective the new requirements have been in deterring maple theft. “A lot of thefts never get reported,” he says. “The victims say, ‘What am I going to do about it? They stole a tree. The cops have better things to do.’ ” But because both the seller and buyer have to keep a copy of the permit, at least now there’s a paper trail that can make it easier for authorities to know who’s selling what to whom.

 

Dead but Not Buried The remains of the Douglas fir still lie rotting in a Shelton log yard.

As far as the gossips at Logger’s Landing were concerned, only one man possessed the right combination of access, audacity, and desperation to have lifted the maple from the Olympic National Forest. Reid Johnston, in his late 30s at the time, grew up in the Brinnon area. He attended the University of Washington in the early ’90s to study forestry but dropped out a few credits short of graduation. And he was known around town for having dabbled in logging; in March 2007 he’d founded a company called Sound Maple. But in recent years he’d become better known for two other things: repeated run-ins with the law for suspected tree theft and a rumored meth habit. 

By contrast, Johnston’s father, Stan, was well known within the community as the owner of a successful real estate business and a supporter of youth sports; for years he and his wife, Candy, sponsored local little league baseball teams. He also owned a lot of land, including 240 acres of wooded property that bordered the national forest. The very same wooded property, as a matter of fact, into which all of that maple appeared to have vanished.

 

 

Flames engulfed the eastern slope of the Olympics once again in 1870, and this time the Douglas fir was right in their path. In the preceding 200 years, it had reached skyward at a remarkable rate, growing almost to its full height of 130 feet. And the view from up there must have been a strange combination of breathtaking and horrifying as the inferno raced onward. But when the fire reached the Dosewallips River drainage and charred virtually everything else in the area, it did nothing more to the tree than scorch its trunk, if even that. The dense, corky bark it had spent decades building—an ingenious adaptation, given the species’ preference for fire-slicked areas—held off the flames.

Then, 100 years later, the tree stared down death again. By the 1970s, crews were legally falling trees in Brinnon, and to a larger extent Quilcene, by the hundreds every day. Back then the Johnston property was owned by Pope and Talbot, a major timber company based in Halsey, Oregon. Over six months late in that decade, it hired two logging outfits to clear the land. Fred Pleines owned one of them. Pleines was 23 at the time and, with two other men, he cut almost 18,000 trees from that parcel at a rate of 200 per day. What was there was of so-so quality—mostly hemlock, cedar, and Doug fir that had grown back from the last period of clear-cutting in the ’30s and ’40s—but they felled it all, trucking it out to Pope and Talbot’s sawmill in Port Gamble. “We was lean and mean back then,” says Pleines. “We didn’t have to go to the gym.”

Pleines’s crew cut right up to the federal boundary, within sight of the Douglas fir. Had they been allowed to take it, they would have, making it just one more log on a truck that would have been milled into boards, that would have been trimmed down further and hammered into the frame of an anonymous house in an anonymous neighborhood. But by virtue of the breeze that dropped the Douglas fir’s seed just so, it was spared.

That didn’t necessarily mean it had escaped a death by chain saw, though. The government claimed the land on which the Doug fir stood in 1897, and 10 years later the Olympic National Forest was established. But that didn’t stop crews from logging there. Well into the 1980s trees in the national forest were still a cash crop for the government, yet geographic chance favored our tree once again: It was too tough to reach from the federal side of the boundary line and there were too few other harvestable trees nearby to make logging the area worthwhile. Then in 1994 federal protections for old growth forests virtually outlawed logging on federal lands in the Olympic National Forest. And just like that the tree was safe. Its top broke, possibly in a windstorm, but ironically that made it even more valuable to the forest by creating crooks that could house families of marbled murrelets, seabirds that feast in the saltwater inlet just a couple miles away and that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service has classified as threatened. For the first time in its life, the Douglas fir found peace.

 

 

Loggers aren’t the only patronsof Logger’s Landing; law enforcement officers stationed at the U.S. Forest Service office just a block away frequent the place, too. And once word of the alleged maple theft got to them, by way of a loose-lipped log buyer who worked with Hughes, it wasn’t long before it made it east over the Cascades and to the desk of U.S. Forest Service special agent Anne Minden, in the mountain town of Winthrop.

Minden has investigated crimes in national forests throughout Washington and Oregon for more than 25 years, and nearly two-thirds of them involved tree theft. In January 2008, when she began looking into Reid Johnston, another case sat on her desk. So she knew poachers. And even though they had a reputation for being strung out, they took their work seriously. For starters, they waited until night to creep into the forest, with only the beams from their headlamps and flashlights to cut a path in the darkness. They worked in groups that included lookouts, they communicated via CB radios, and sometimes they even used motion-activated camera surveillance systems to detect approaching property owners or rangers. Not that they usually made enough noise to draw unwanted attention: To muffle the growl of their chain saws, they ran hoses from the exhaust port into a bucket of water. And the very smartest thieves were careful not to leave behind traces of their crimes. Sometimes they’d shear off trees right at ground level to leave as little stump as possible in the hopes that it would be harder to notice; other times, if it was feasible, they’d rip the stump right out of the ground.

If Johnston had tried to cover his tracks, he failed miserably. Not only did the skidder tracks lead back to his father’s property, but when Forest Service officers visited the site they spotted several trees along that same path that had been “checked.” (Rather than risk wasting time by falling a tree and cutting it into blocks only to find it has no figured sections, thieves will use an ax to slice pieces of bark off standing maples and look for the pattern underneath.) And mounting evidence away from the scene also seemed to implicate Johnston. Just weeks after the Forest Service learned of the missing maple, two employees drove by his house, which was no more than 10 minutes from the scene of the purported theft, and saw a backhoe tractor, logging truck, and skidder parked in a side yard.

The once proud sentinel of the forest took its first and last ride hidden in the back of a dump truck.

On four separate occasions after that, an employee observed Johnston’s truck parked in front of a maple mill north of town. And at least once in spring 2008, Minden and other officers covertly surveilled a vacant lot in town owned by Stan Johnston and watched as Reid brazenly cut up maple logs in broad daylight. 

Damning though the evidence may have been, it was all circumstantial. Minden couldn’t definitively prove where Johnston got the maple she saw him cutting in that lot. And after checking with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office she learned that sometime prior to Hughes’s discovery, Johnston had obtained a permit to harvest maple. Minden continued to work the case, interviewing witnesses and poking around town, but otherwise she laid back in the weeds. Based on Johnston’s prior brushes with the law, it was only a matter of time before he would try to cut where he had no business cutting. Maybe she’d catch him in the act. Or at the very least she’d be able to gather enough hard evidence this time to convince the U.S. attorney to prosecute him. 

And so, with an eye always on the forest, she waited. 

 

The very thing that had seen the Douglas fir through one brush with death after another—namely its blend of good fortune and better genes—is the same thing that caught Reid Johnston’s attention. But where others saw beauty in its size and age and lush greenery, he saw a tower of a different kind of green. For years the tree had stood just out of reach, taunting him from the other side of a line he couldn’t see but had to have known was there. Now, days before Christmas 2009 and while the feds were still investigating his alleged maple theft, he decided it was finally time to take it down.

The singular nature of that Doug fir had one other unfortunate consequence. Although surrounded by other trees, it was unmistakable, incapable of disappearing into its surroundings. And it had no choice but to stand rooted to the same place it always had as a man slipped out of the treeline to the west, carrying little more than a chain saw.

 

The problem with trying to keep an eye on a piece of tree-covered land as large as the Olympic National Forest—which stretches out over 633,000 acres of the Olympic Peninsula—is that you can never see more than the tiniest fraction at any one moment. The U.S. Forest Service has four agents tasked with investigating all crimes in the state, as well as two others who help on an as-needed basis. And it typically employs three uniformed enforcement officers responsible for patrolling the Olympic National Forest.

In other words, the chances that one of those officers would be in the forest just outside Brinnon on any given day aren’t so great. The chances that they’d be there just before Christmas 2009 are slim. And the chances that one of them would have chosen that week to patrol the Dosewallips River drainage, just 20 feet east of the Johnston property and a quarter mile south of the maple theft site found by Richard Hughes? Nonexistent. 

So despite their best efforts to watch out for Reid Johnston, no one saw the man who came for the Douglas fir born in 1668. And it’s possible no one saw him because they weren’t looking for him. His name was Mike Love. He cut trees when he could find work and, like Johnston, he was rumored to be a junkie. Johnston had hired Love to fall the tree, promising to pay him for the job with the proceeds of the tree’s sale, which had the potential to be quite lucrative: Johnston already had a buyer lined up willing to fork out $15,000 for the massive specimen. 

Thoughts of money—and what it could buy—had to wait, though, because Love needed to concentrate. Bringing down a tree of any size is perilous work, so perilous that responsible fallers, even the shady ones, work in pairs and carry a whistle so they can call for help if the job goes sideways. Trees don’t always fall where you want them to. And sometimes they can snap before the cutting’s done and come back and “knock the snot out of you,” says Pat Handley, a retired logger from the area. “You can’t just be out there la-di-da-ing.”

Love made the first cut, a horizontal one, on the side of the tree facing the direction he wanted it to fall, in this case west, toward the Johnston property. He sawed through about a third of the trunk, or more than 100 years’ worth of growth, before pulling the bar back out and making his second cut. He started this one below the first and cut up at an angle to take a sizable wedge out of the trunk, a technique that encourages the tree to tip in that direction. It’s known as an undercut. Then he moved around to the far side of the tree, lined up the saw with his first cut, and sank the bar in horizontally once again, chewing away at another 150 or so years. Had he sawed all the way through, the effect of the undercut would have been nullified and the tree could have fallen whichever way it wanted. But Love knew what he was doing. He left a few inches of live wood in the middle—called a hinge—to act as a fulcrum point, let the Doug fir’s weight do the work, and then watched it come down with a thunderous crash of splintering limbs.

 On some logging jobs, the most experienced fallers will compete to see who has the best aim by trying to drop trees on watermelons placed on the ground as targets. Love wasn’t interested in proving his skill, though. Assuming he worked efficiently, the whole thing would have taken about half an hour. 

The tree was then stripped of its branches and cut up into four 12-foot logs and one 10-foot log that were hauled out of the area with a rented excavator. And after a brief pit stop at Johnston’s house, those logs—the very best of a Douglas fir spawned by fire, spared by two more, and that had the good fortune to take root just this side of a timber killing field, only to be unceremoniously cut down before it had even reached middle age—were ferried south along Washington State Highway 101 to a log yard in Shelton, where they’d wait in the rain to be sold. 

Timber that size would usually make such a trip on the flatbed trailer of a log truck, but not this load. The once proud sentinel of the forest that had stood for 340 years took its first and last ride hidden in the back of a dump truck, a rumbling hearse more suitable for gravel, construction-site detritus, or manure.

 

Even a clumsy thief can get away with pilfering and selling a few dozen maple trees. But it’s not so easy to fence logs the size of those cut from the Douglas fir without drawing the wrong kind of attention. Especially when the thief stores them in plain view and shops them to just about any buyer who will listen. One such buyer, Tom French, had heard about Johnston’s Doug fir—had even considered making an offer—but when he saw it in Shelton, he knew something was wrong. Johnston claimed to have taken the tree from his father’s property, but French knew all about Stan’s land. And he knew that, after the clear-cutting that went on in the ’70s, there was no way a tree this big would have been left to harvest.

French relayed his suspicions to a Forest Service employee in Quilcene in late January 2010, and the ground beneath Johnston’s feet began to shrink quickly. Not long after that, Special Agent Minden interviewed French, who’d since learned more about how the tree ended up in the log yard. It seems Mike Love had also heard French was dubious of the tree’s supposed origin and called the buyer to hash things out. Love was confused and spooked. Johnston had told him the land was resurveyed years prior, pushing the boundary line east—past the Douglas fir. Love insisted to French that he thought he’d cut the tree legally and repeated the same thing to Minden when she interviewed him on January 27. His story—or at least his belief that he hadn’t done anything wrong—seemed to check out. Minden found that a Forest Service boundary sign had been moved well east of its original location, making it appear that the tree was on private land.

Within two weeks Minden had a search warrant for Johnston’s house, where she found notebooks, receipts, and bank records that began to tell the story of how many logs he’d sold in the last few years. On November 9, 2011, Reid Johnston was indicted in U.S. District Court on two charges: theft of government property and damage to government property. All told, according to the U.S. attorney who tried the case, Johnston had stolen more than 100 trees from the national forest—the Douglas fir being by far the largest and oldest—worth a combined $216,000 on the timber market. In terms of sheer quantity, it was the biggest theft Minden has investigated in her 26-year career.

After mounting a vigorous defense based on his alleged belief that the boundary line had been moved—despite his inability to produce paperwork to support the claim—Johnston finally relented in September 2012 and pleaded guilty to one charge. He was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison and ordered to pay $84,000 in restitution. He filed an appeal but dropped it in April.

  

“It’s a rare thing and not replaceable,” says Jan Henderson of the Douglas fir. Along with Robin Lesher, he tried in summer 2011 to place an ecological value on the trees that were lost, taking into account the habitat they could provide for endangered species both while they were alive and after they died naturally—assuming they weren’t cut down. The number they settled on for the Douglas fir was $19,126, far more than any other single tree Johnston had felled and, sadly, far, far more than the tree is worth now.

The $15,000 that Johnston’s first buyer offered was for the tree in one piece. But after it was cut into sections—presumably to make it easier to haul out of the forest—the price dropped to $7,500. He never got a cent, though, because the government seized it before he could consummate a deal. Today it’s still sitting in that log yard in Shelton, exposed to the elements and rotting, its value in the timber market plunging more every day. The feds will sell it to you if you’re interested; just make them an offer.

 

Published: May 2013

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