HIBBING, Minn. – Call it a black spruce market.
Two Meadowlands residents have been arrested and charged with stealing nearly 2,000 spruce trees off county-managed forestland – small trees and tree tops that they intended to sell in southern Minnesota as miniature Christmas trees.
Steven George Morterud, 22, and Tara Lynn Herrick, 23, were arrested Nov. 8 and charged in state district court in Hibbing with theft of timber, a gross misdemeanor that could bring up to $3,000 in fines and up to one year in jail. They also were charged with misdemeanor trespass.
Quick action by Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Conservation Officer Don Bozovsky thwarted what would have amounted to about $15,000 worth of illegal tree sales.
“The total was 1,970 trees, and they said they are getting from $6 to $9 per tree top, so it would have been a felony theft had it gone through,” Bozovsky said. “We get these illegal cuts just about every year, but this is the biggest one I’ve had.”
The charges were gross misdemeanors based on the value of the unpaid fee to the county, about 41 cents per tree or about $800.
The trees were cut over several days on county land west of Toivola and then stashed on adjacent private land.
County, state and federal land managers often sell the rights for loggers to cut black spruce where it’s overabundant, with the agencies getting a small amount of money in return. There’s a strong seasonal market for the tree tops and, much like the harvest of balsam boughs for wreaths, the tree-top business is considered an important addition for the rural Northland economy. Usually loggers bid on tracts of black spruce in August, with the highest bidder getting a permit to cut in a specific area in October and November, said Mark Webber, director of St. Louis County’s Land and Minerals Department.
“The market for those little tress apparently is pretty good this year,” Weber said.
But, in this case, the suspects had no permit and paid nothing. Moreover, the suspects were cutting young trees near their base, which will spur uneven and deformed re-growth, Bozovsky said.
“They just went in there with a shears and lopped them off,” Bozovsky said. “Normally they (land agencies) issue the permits for mature spruce stands were they want to see some cutting as part of forest management.”
According to the criminal complaint, Bozovsky received notice from county foresters on Nov. 7 that trees were being cut and taken off county land illegally. Bozovsky and another conservation officer staked the tree stash out that night to no avail. But when he went back the next day, he ran into Morterud carrying bundles of the Christmas trees off the site, he said. Bozovsky arrested Morterud without incident. Morterud then named Herrick as his accomplice and she was found just 100 yards away on the county land, bundling more tree tops.
Both suspects were arrested, booked into the Hibbing jail and later charged in court. They have not yet entered a plea.
According to the criminal complaint, both claimed at first that they didn’t know who owned the land but knew they should not be there cutting trees. They said they had been cutting at the site since late October. They also said they were filling an order to sell the trees in Rochester, Minn.
Morterud also was charged in the same criminal complaint with violation of a court order for protection which had been put in place to protect Herrick. Morterud was convicted earlier this year of domestic assault by strangulation against her.
John Myers | Duluth News Tribune