A total of 35 mature black walnut trees were stolen from government lands between January and March 2012. Twenty-five of these trees were removed from property managed by Saylorville Lake, totaling $35,000 in timber value. The additional trees were taken from the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge and Lake Red Rock.
The case was initiated with a report of cut trees by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) park manager on Jan. 11, 2012. What followed was an intensive investigation of the river corridor for more cut sites. Once multiple cut sites were found, actions were taken to conduct surveillance of the area. Evidence was collected and expert foresters were brought in from the DNR and U.S. Forest Service.
The investigation resulted in the arrest of a suspect who currently awaits trial for five counts of felony theft. Multiple agencies contributed to this case including the DNR, Polk County Conservation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, Polk County Sheriff’s Office, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
All of the trees taken were mature veneer quality black walnuts. These trees are the most valuable species in the low-land hardwood ecosystem but have a limited growing area, only able to establish on higher benches throughout the forested wetland. Many other trees were also damaged as a result of felling the large trees in a dense established forest canopy and from the suspect cutting a path for his truck to get the logs.
In addition to the actual current market timber value, there was a large amount of wanton waste left in the forest including: sawlog quality timber, trees left hung up in the canopies of others, piles of tree tops crossing mountain bike trails, high stumps, and other tree species felled to access the premier walnut. The selective removal of the highest quality timber, known as forest high-grading, removed the seed source and superior genetics from the ecosystem. This severely impacts the sites ability to regenerate and stifles future timber production in the area.
Timber price was not the only value these trees held. They were located within the Ding Darling Greenway, a globally significant birding area designated by the American Bird Conservancy because of its location along a major flyway for migratory waterfowl and neo-tropical songbirds. The area also has significant value as an urban greenway in the form of pollution control, carbon storage and heat reduction. Poor air quality is a widespread problem in almost all growing urban areas. It can lead to reduced visibility, chronic human health issues and a disruption in local ecosystem processes. The areas where these trees were removed also hold recreational and aesthetic importance to the local community.
The first cut site found was near a trailhead of the Neal Smith multiuse trail system. The second is within a parcel of timber that contains multiple mountain bike trails, many of which were blocked by the felled tree tops and required hours of work to clear. These trails are used by thousands of visitors each year who will no longer have the opportunity to view these historic trees that ranged from 110-150 years old. Since a majority of Iowa is controlled by private landowners, trees of this magnitude only exist on small portions of public lands and represent a unique timeline that has now been destroyed.
The timber theft was not a harmless act of vandalism or someone desperately searching for firewood. The theft and removal of virtually all black walnut trees from this section of the Des Moines River corridor impacts the entire population of Des Moines and lower Polk County. These trees represented an irreplaceable legacy that can only be found on small parcels of public lands around the state. This theft represents far more then monetary timber values; it has drastically altered the ecosystem impacting biodiversity, recreation and wildlife.