‘Tis the season and as thoughts turn to the holidays, some fix their gaze on finding the perfect Christmas tree in a national forest. But as a Pasadena man learned the hard way Thursday, it does not pay to chop down your tree on federal land.
In the first case this season, a national forest ranger spotted a freshly cut, eight-foot white fir in the back of a car traveling down Angeles Crest Highway. After a chase that at times involved high speeds along the 210 Freeway, rangers caught up with the man and the tree outside his home. A handsaw was found in the car.
Curtis Gion, 25, was cited for illegally cutting down the tree. He will be fined $100 and billed for three times the value of the tree, another $300, rangers said.
“It’s a very expensive endeavor,” said U.S. Forest Service Ranger Will Shaw. “The penalties make it not worth it to cut a tree.”
Besides, the tree was confiscated. After being tagged and photographed as evidence, the white fir will be donated to a senior citizens center in Sierra Madre.
With Christmas coming, Shaw and other rangers throughout Angeles National Forest are on the lookout for tree cutters. A Forest Service veteran, Shaw knows that illegal tree cutting during the holidays is as likely as turkey at Thanksgiving.
So when he spotted a car headed out of the forest with the tree in the back, Shaw gave chase. But, Gion “took evasive action and tried to outrun me,” Shaw said.
As the chase continued down the freeway, Shaw said, he decided not to endanger himself and others by chasing the fleeing tree cutter. He radioed the license number to a dispatcher and another Forest Service officer was sent to the Pasadena address where the car was registered. Gion had just arrived with the tree.
Although illegally cutting or removing a tree from the national forest without a permit is punishable by up to a $500 fine and six months in jail, Shaw said Gion showed remorse and will not face the maximum penalty. “He’ll never do that again,” Shaw said.
“It’s a lesson learned,” Gion said. “I wasn’t thinking enough when I did that.”
Gion said he arrived in California six months ago from Nebraska where farmers allow Christmas tree cutting on their land. “Usually they are called weeds,” he said.
But Shaw said that in arid Southern California, a ring count showed that it took 27 years for the “real healthy” white fir to grow to eight feet in a delicate area on the fringe of the San Gabriel Mountains wilderness area.
Shaw said rangers will be out in force through the holidays to protect the trees, holly, cedar boughs and mistletoe from returning home with visitors from the cities below.