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Poachers Butchering Northern California's Majestic Redwoods For Profit

HUMBOLDT COUNTY (KPIX 5) -- California's treasured redwood trees are under attack by poachers hacking out the trees' distinctive burls which are later turned into tables, artwork or other adornments.

Dan Baleme's livelihood comes from redwood, and he's protective of it. That's why he is upset.

What Dan and many others are so upset about is that some of the few remaining old growth redwood trees are getting hacked and maimed by thoughtless, greedy thieves.

"I don't know anybody down in this area that wasn't absolutely repulsed," said Baleme.

It's happening inside national and state parks -- land set aside to protect the trees.

"We assume it's going on late at night, in the dark, probably in bad weather conditions when it's raining, or kind of nasty out," said State Park Ranger Brett Silver. "They use chainsaws, plain and simple, (they) come and cut a slice off."

Silver led us on a hike into a tree that's thousands of years old. It's already suffering from damage by a fire, but clearly still alive. Yet, it's been cut as many as 18 times by thieves who are after the burl.

Emily Burns, Science Director at 'Save the Redwoods' says the burl is the trees' stem cells.

"They allow the trees to live on in new generations, giving rise to sprouts that take their place," said Burns. "So when the burl is taken away, it actually reduces the tree's chance of being able to reproduce."

Burl is also what provides the colors, grains and textures so highly prized in furniture, bowls and other souvenirs. Where there is a demand, poachers have found a way to provide an illegal supply.

We found a good example of poachers going after some low hanging fruit. They took their chainsaws and made a horizontal cut about eye level. Then they made some wedge cuts into the tree and they took a burl from the front of the tree. But they left two big burls that were too high.

Rangers are closing the park's main road at night and varying their patrol hours to try and put a stop to the thefts.

Unfortunately, there's only one ranger for every 10,000 acres, and poachers are getting more daring.

Another burl we found was more of a challenge. It was 50 feet up in the tree. Rangers say thieves cut down the entire tree -- a 400 year old redwood tree in order to get to it.

Dan Baleme said he and others who buy redwood do their best to not buy stolen redwood.

"We get social security numbers, driver's licenses, addresses, and we ask where the wood came from," said Baleme. "We verify all that information as best we can."

Greed from loggers was what first inspired protection for redwoods in our state and national parks. Now, the remaining giants are subject to greed that has somehow penetrated the parks' boundaries and borders.

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