Brazen poachers steal 800-year-old cedar from Vancouver Island park

Torrance Coste is seen sitting on the stump of what is said to have been a 800-year-old red cedar.An environmentalist is blaming budget cuts for allowing wood poachers to haul an 800-year-old red cedar tree out of a Vancouver Island provincial park.

Torrance Coste, a campaigner for the group Wilderness Committee, said the theft is an example of what can happen when there's no one to watch over the parks system.

"We have been concerned about the cutting of park budgets for a number of years. Until about 18 months ago, people would have been watching," Coste told Postmedia News.

Tree poachers first targeted one of the largest red cedars in Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island last year.

They cut almost all the way through its trunk, which measured 2.75 in diameter, but then abandoned the effort. B.C. Parks workers felled the tree for safety reasons and left it to decompose naturally.

However, the poachers returned recently to finish their work.

"The trunk has been hauled out, cut up and taken away, presumably to be further processed and sold," Coste said, suggesting it could have been milled into valuable cedar roof shakes.

Coste was upset that when he discovered the theft about two weeks ago and reported it to Parks B.C. and RCMP, he was told there was little chance of finding the thieves.

B.C. Parks official Andy Macdonald said there was little evidence to investigate and even the tire tracks of the heavy equipment the thieves used had been obscured.

"It's one of the more remote parks on Vancouver Island that doesn't see a lot of visitation, so I would guess the illegal activity occurred when no one else was present," he said.

B.C. Environment Ministry figures show the number of full-time and seasonal park rangers monitoring the province's parks has been cut in half over the last decade.

Ministry spokesman Suntanu Dalal told Postmedia News illegal tree removal happens each year in parks and protected areas but is not a big problem.

"There are trees that are targeted and removed for their specific value, which can vary from basic firewood to curly maple used to make fine musical instruments or cedar used for shake blocks," he said.

"Regional B.C. Parks rangers work with other provincial enforcement agencies to investigate tree removal theft and damage."

But Coste told CBC News rangers rarely monitor remote sites, giving poachers a free hand.

"Whoever's doing this knows that no one's going to have eyes on this park for months at a time so it's exceptionally easy to do what they've done," he said.

RCMP Sgt. Dave Voller of the Cowichan Lake detachment, about a two-hour drive from the park, said police are investigating but acknowledged problems in following up the theft.

"There's not much we can investigate since we have no physical evidence or description of offenders and once wood is removed from the forest, it's extremely difficult to track where it came from," Voller told CBC.

"That's one of the logistical problems with having a park that's miles from anywhere, with no one who is on site as far as management goes."

(Photo courtesy The Canadian Press)