The Thieves of Spring

Here’s a new one for your list of harbingers of spring: maple sap stealing.

[A]s Maine’s sugaring season kicks off, forest rangers from the state’s Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry are once again on the lookout for maple bandits — amateur tree-tappers illicitly harvesting sap from under the noses of landowners. Reports of illegal tapping have been on the rise for the last five years, says ranger Thomas Liba, and the story got international attention last winter, with outlets like the Associated Press and The Economist reporting on the thefts. As criminal activity goes, sap bootlegging may seem offbeat and harmless, but according to Liba, molesting another man’s maples can have expensive consequences for a landowner.

“The sap itself is a minor issue,” explains Liba, who patrols much of the Katahdin region from an office in East Millinocket. “It’s the damage to a tree that has the biggest impact. If a landowner was planning to send that tree to the mill, having a tap hole in it greatly decreases the value.”

Right now, sellers fetch around $900 for 1,000 board feet of veneer-quality hard maple, used to make cabinets, furniture, and flooring. Closed-up tap holes, however, leave streaks in wood that diminish its value by two-thirds or more, rendering an otherwise handsome log useful only for pallet wood or firewood.

Since it takes around 40 gallons of sap to make a single gallon of syrup, sap thieves often target dozens of trees in a stand, and losses quickly add up. What’s more, most maple pirates are simply hobbyists using makeshift gear, and a three-quarter-inch PVC pipe inserted into a tree leaves more conspicuous scarring than the smaller taps favored by commercially licensed producers.

Rangers received more than 30 landowner complaints of illicit sugaring last year. In some cases, Liba and other rangers have spotted suspect taps, then used video surveillance and stakeouts to apprehend the culprits. Potential criminal penalties include citations for damage to property, trespassing, and littering, but court-ordered restitution to landowners can far surpass these fines. Many sap thieves, says Liba, genuinely don’t realize the impact of their actions. Accustomed to years of lax regulation on timber-company lands, some figure the trees are more or less theirs to tap. In fact, changing land ownership patterns likely account for much of the rise in sap-theft reports — what was once an acceptable loss for yesteryear’s huge timber companies is now an issue worth policing for smaller landowners.

But it’s not just forest-products companies that are feeling tapped out. “We’ve had reports,” says Liba, “of individuals coming back from wintering in Florida and finding the tree in their front yard has been tapped.”

Maple owners, take note: Consider video surveillance during your next vacation.

— Brian Kevin


Photo: ©Martine Oger |