The game officer followed the truck tracks through the snowy soybean field, into a stand of trees and to the partially hidden Chevy — where he discovered a man napping inside, toppled trees outside.
Rich Berggren, a conservation officer with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, woke the driver. He noted the timber already on a trailer. He counted the stumps.
And there, on the rural western edge of Douglas County last month, he added it all up.
Black walnut poachers had made it to Nebraska.
“We’d heard of this theft,” Berggren said. “It had been occurring in Iowa and Missouri, and it looked like it was coming this way.”
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It’s easy money, more lucrative now than its sister hustle — stealing and selling scrap metal.
“Prices of scrap metal have dropped, so now for quick cash, thieves have focused on black walnut trees,” said Greg Wagner, a Game and Parks spokesman. “It’s these fly-by-night people looking for quick money, quick cash.”
A good-sized piece of old-growth walnut — maybe 18 inches in diameter, more than 20 feet in length — can net an easy $600, Wagner said. The high-end hardwood is valued for its veneer, and prized by woodworkers, furniture builders and cabinet makers.
It’s also a Nebraska native. The eastern black walnut can be found as far west as the Niobrara River Valley in Cherry County. Trees can grow up to 60 feet, with a canopy that spreads up to 50.
“It will take 100 years for some of the walnut trees to get big,” Wagner said. “Eliminating that in a forest is huge. It’s huge.”
But it’s not new. Other states, including Iowa, have been plagued by tree thieves for years. In 2017, two men were charged with felony theft after nine trees disappeared from a state forest north of Council Bluffs, Iowa. A few years before that, another went to prison for taking 32 trees from federal land — including a single specimen later valued at $10,000.
“The market’s hot,” said Steve Griebel, an officer with Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources. “Walnut is what everyone wants.”
Griebel takes the black market for black walnut personally. He grew up in a logging family, and the thieves are casting a shadow on the legitimate industry. “They give the good guys a bad name,” he said.
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But he also approaches it professionally. Taking a century-old trophy tree is like poaching a 200-inch-class white-tail buck, he told NebraskaLand magazine. It robs the future, because it eliminates some of a species’ best reproductive genetics.
No tree, no seeds, no future generations.
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Tree thieves aren’t going to target your neighborhood.
They seek secluded areas instead, Wagner said. A few months ago, a Douglas County landowner discovered trees missing near the Platte River. And last year, a game officer investigated a case of tree theft from a state wildlife management area in Platte County.
“A squirrel hunter called him and said, ‘What’s up with all the missing walnut trees?’”
Tree thieves often strike in low light, sometimes at night, sometimes using quieter electric chainsaws, Wagner said. They try to hide their trucks deep in the woods to avoid detection.
But that didn’t work so well last month in western Douglas County.
Wagner got a call that Wednesday afternoon from a landowner near Waterloo. He’d spotted tracks in his neighbor’s field, caught a glint of a vehicle in the woods, and thought it might be hunters.
Wagner called Berggren, the conservation officer, who followed the tracks and found the sleeping logger. He also found trees on a trailer and trees on the ground and a path that had been clear-cut through the woods.
It looked to him like someone had made several trips in and out, and that up to eight black walnut trees had been harvested, Berggren said.
Douglas County deputies showed up, along with Waterloo police. They got in touch with the landowner, who wanted to press charges.
The suspect, a 52-year-old Omaha man, is scheduled to appear in court Monday on a misdemeanor charge of criminal trespass, but he tried to explain it away that day in the woods: He’d met someone somewhere who told him the land was going to be cleared for development and he was welcome to the trees, said Waterloo Police Chief Tim Donahue.
“He could have been BS-ing us,” the chief said. “Sometimes, people lie to us.”