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A long-time resident of the Olympic Peninsula was sentenced today in U.S. District Court in Tacoma to 30 days in prison for felling and stealing a big leaf maple on federal land near Olympic National Park, announced U.S. Attorney Annette L. Hayes. MICHAEL D. WELCHES, 63, pleaded guilty in October 2017 to depredation of government property for the timber theft that occurred in November 2013. At the sentencing hearing U.S. District Judge Robert J. Bryan said “These are very valuable trees and provide a great temptation. . . . People give into that temptation, but it's not appropriate. . . . It's just simple theft.”
“The natural resources in our federally protected lands belong to all of us, and to future generations not to thieves making a quick buck,” said U.S. Attorney Hayes. “But for an alert neighbor notifying a park ranger, this defendant would literally have gotten away like ‘a thief in the night.’”
According to records filed in the case, on November 11, 2013, a neighbor residing near the Elwha restoration project lands notified the Park Service that he had heard chainsaws in the middle of the night. The neighbor said he saw people in the woods wearing headlamps. The neighbor reported similar activity a few nights later. The ranger investigated in daylight and found a felled big leaf maple. He asked the neighbor to call him directly if he heard or saw additional activity. The next night, at 1:00 AM the neighbor alerted the ranger. Law enforcement responded and arrested WELCHES and two codefendants as they were cutting and loading the felled maple. A receipt indicated the men had sold the wood to a Quilcene, Washington music wood supplier. Wood retrieved from that supplier matched the wood from the felled maple.
The value of the timber as music wood is estimated to be $8,766. The tree as a living part of the Elwha ecosystem is irreplaceable.
In asking that WELCHES serve prison time, prosecutors noted that in 2004 he was convicted of illegally cutting trees on state timber trust land.
A second defendant, Matthew Hutto has pleaded guilty and is scheduled for sentencing next month. Defendant Richard Welches is being sought by law enforcement.
The case was investigated by the National Park Service Investigative Services Branch. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Andre Penalver.
Press contact for the U.S. Attorney’s Office is Public Affairs Officer Emily Langlie at (206) 553-4110 or Emily.Langlie@usdoj.gov.