A quick check beneath the bark of the bigleaf maple confirmed that the campers had finally tracked down what they were looking for. The towering tree with enormous, fanlike leaves was different from others growing within Washington state's Olympic National Forest - it contained highly prized wood worth hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.
But before the maple could be illegally chopped down and hauled out of the protected area last year, the timber thieves found themselves facing an unexpected complication, according to a federal indictment unsealed Monday. A colony of bees had made the valuable tree their home, which meant that felling it was now "difficult or impossible," the indictment said.
Instead of giving up, federal prosecutors say the tree poachers attempted to get rid of the bee nest - which proved to be a costly mistake. Their bumbling efforts allegedly sparked a forest fire that burned out of control for several days last fall, scorching 3,300 acres of federal and state land, according to a news release from the U.S. attorney's office in the Western District of Washington. Known as the Maple Fire, the blaze cost $4.5 million to extinguish, the release said.
Justin Andrew Wilke and Shawn Edward Williams were charged with multiple federal felonies related to their alleged scheme to steal bigleaf maple trees from the sprawling national forest west of Seattle, officials said Monday. A spokesperson with the U.S. attorney's office told The Washington Post that Wilke pleaded not guilty during a court appearance on Monday and remains detained. His trial will begin in December. Williams is in state custody in California and will be transported to Washington state to be arraigned, the spokesperson said.
"The defendants not only stole and destroyed irreplaceable trees, they caused a wildfire that damaged pristine forests, polluted the air, and caused millions of dollars in suppression costs," U.S. Attorney Brian T. Moran said in a statement to The Post. "These are the public's resources and we will hold the defendants accountable for their crimes."
Court records did not name attorneys for Wilke or Williams.
Prosecutors allege that the two men had been illegally harvesting and selling high-value bigleaf maple wood for several months before the fire broke out in August 2018. Some of the deciduous trees, which are most often found in Washington, Oregon, California and British Columbia, develop patterned wood that is treasured among woodworkers and makers of musical instruments, such as guitars and violins, according to the indictment. Tree poaching costs the U.S. Forest Service as much as $100 million each year, and western Washington is one of the most affected regions, High Country News reported in 2017.
Between April and August 2018, Wilke and Williams were allegedly part of a group that searched the Olympic National Forest for the special trees, identifying potential targets by "using an axe to peel back the bark to expose the pattern of the wood," the complaint said.
When they found the right tree, they felled it with a chain saw, cut it into smaller blocks and removed it from the forest, prosecutors said. The wood was later taken to a private property nearby, where it was prepped for sale.
The men are accused of selling the timber by using permits that falsely indicated it was taken from private land, according to the court documents. According to the complaint, one sale of the illegally obtained wood totaled $6,000.
On Aug. 2, 2018, Wilke and Williams returned to the protected land with a group of people and set up camp around the eastern edge of the forest, the indictment alleged. Along with another unnamed person, Wilke and Williams combed through the area's dense foliage for about a day before finding a bigleaf maple with the distinctive wood, documents said.
But upon further examination, the three people allegedly discovered the inconveniently located bee nest.
First, there was an attempt to douse the nest in wasp killer, but that did little to dislodge the bees, according to the indictment. Then, they allegedly came up with another idea.
"Wilke would kill the bees by burning the nest," the complaint said.
After pouring gasoline on the insects' dwelling, Wilke allegedly lit the nest and the tree on fire, creating a blaze that kept burning despite the trio's efforts to extinguish it with water bottles, prosecutors said in Monday's release.
By the time first responders arrived on the morning of Aug. 4, 2018, the fire was about 30 feet wide and expanding as it burned through the deep layer of dead plant material coating the forest floor, the Kitsap Sun reported last year. The firefighters, however, had a bigger problem to deal with: The flames had also started to engulf "a 90-foot-tall bigleaf maple," according to the newspaper.
One Forest Service firefighter told the Sun that while crews managed to put out the ground fire, the flaming tree showered embers onto the surrounding foliage, and soon the blaze covered three acres.
The Maple Fire burned for at least four days before it was controlled, continuing to smolder within containment lines until rains finally quenched the lingering flames, the Seattle Times reported. In May, officials warned that areas affected by the fire were still not safe.
It is unclear how investigators connected Wilke and Williams to the Maple Fire, but early incident reports indicated that the blaze was "human-caused." According to the indictment, as firefighters battled the fire on Aug. 4, 2018, Wilke and an unnamed person were questioned by Forest Service authorities. Both allegedly lied about timber poaching, and Wilke claimed he didn't know anything about the fire.
Wilke faces eight felony charges including conspiracy, two counts of depredation of public property, theft of public property, trafficking in unlawfully harvested timber, attempted trafficking in unlawfully harvested timber, setting timber afire and using fire in furtherance of a felony, Monday's release said. Williams was charged with conspiracy, depredation of government property and attempted trafficking in unlawfully harvested timber.
The charges carry sentences of up to five or 10 years in prison and fines of $250,000.