Tree Tipping Generates Cash and Seasonal Woes in Maine

Author: 

Jess Bidgood

Published Date: 

December 23, 2014

Dennis Figueroa, 30, a legal tree tipper, with balsam fir branches gathered in Washington County, Maine. Credit Tristan Spinski for The New York Times

 

 

DEBLOIS, Me. — Forest rangers spend the last months of the year scanning the woods here for signs of a crime.

The telltale white tips of snapped off branches of balsam fir trees and vehicle tracks leading just off the road may be signs of illegal tipping, a form of seasonal larceny in which the branches are snatched without permission and sold to make Christmas wreaths.

“It’s a big problem for us,” says Courtney Hammond, a district forest ranger who, in a pickup truck, keeps his eye on vast swaths of land here. He and his colleagues, he said, have caught about eight suspected tip rustlers this year. Last year rangers made a seizure of more than 1,400 pounds of illegally harvested tips.

“I’m sure that’s just scratching the surface of what goes on,” Mr. Hammond said, because there are only a handful of rangers to cover all of Washington County, where much of the tipping occurs.

In Maine, it is illegal both to cut and transport evergreen boughs without permission, and in some cases — if a suspect has two prior theft convictions, for example — an illegal tipper can be charged with a felony and even sent to jail. But with brush prices climbing — some tip gatherers made 50 cents a pound this year — tipping provides cash that is welcome in this county with the state’s highest poverty rate.

Starting in early November, workers head into the woods to snap off 12- to 18-inch balsam tree branches, stacking them high on poles, their hands sometimes sticky with pitch. There is nothing high-tech about it; it is a process virtually unchanged here for generations.

Most of this is legal, with tippers getting permission from landowners, usually involving some sort of payment. But for others less scrupulous, it is a Christmas caper, a way of making a little extra money, if you don’t get caught.

One afternoon in mid-December, Mr. Hammond noticed a minivan pulled over just off the road here in Deblois — population 57 — and stopped to do a quick inspection. Before long, the vehicle’s owner, Dennis Figueroa of Machias, emerged from the woods, wearing bright orange as protection against hunters and carrying a bushel of tips under each arm.

 

Courtney Hammond, a Maine Forest Service district ranger, looks for evidence of tree tipping in Washington County, Maine. Credit Tristan Spinski for The New York Times

Mr. Figueroa, 30, showed Mr. Hammond the permit he had obtained from the blueberry company he worked for earlier in the season. Originally from Puerto Rico, he, like many here, knits together an income with seasonal work: blueberries in the late summer, tipping in the winter and the lobster factory after that.

With tipping, “one person can make like 500 dollars a day,” said Mr. Figueroa, though he said he usually makes closer to $200 or $300.

Everett Kennedy, of nearby Harrington, may well be the king of tipping productivity because he approaches the land like a grid. “Some days I’m as high as a ton,” said Mr. Kennedy, 32. “I rarely go below 1,000."

Suzette Grant says she only buys tips for her wreaths from harvesters who carry permits. Credit Tristan Spinski for The New York Times

 

But Mr. Kennedy said he saw Washington County getting picked over, and he is doing what few tippers from here have done before: looking elsewhere.

“It’s been hit so hard over the years, people doing it legally and illegally, I decided last year to move north,” said Mr. Kennedy, who spends the first part of the year scouring satellite imagery for virgin territory, and even uses a drone to vet new land. He said he was careful to obtain permits.

“It is a disappointment when you put that kind of time and research into a property and then it gets hurt by an illegal guy,” said Mr. Kennedy. “Some of the illegal crowd will just cut the tree down. The landowner comes along, sees that, their first thought is that we did it.”

Tips are sold by the pound to wreath makers, like Whitney Wreath, which uses between 30,000 and 40,000 pounds of tips per day. “We take the source of tips to be very, very serious business,” said David Whitney, the company’s chief executive. He said he worked only with tippers who had permission, like Mr. Kennedy.

And scores of wreaths are made not in factories, but in basements and garages, by locals grateful for two months of wintertime work. Suzette Grant is one of those.

“A lot of people, that’s what they do for their Christmas money,” said Ms. Grant, 55, of Columbia Falls, who routinely checks to be sure the boughs are legally tipped. She uses wire to bind brush to dark green rings in a spare work space in her basement. A sign on the front lawn tells passers-by that she is buying brush. “That’s just our way of life, I guess. You do what you have to to survive.”

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