‘Tis the season for illegally cutting Christmas trees in the Adirondacks. That was the jingle, and it was followed by a stern warning from Conservation Department Commissioner Lithgow Osborne in December 1934 that his forest rangers would be on high alert for those attempting to steal their holiday cheer from the Forest Preserve:
“Forest Rangers are very much on guard this time of year because of the tendency of some persons to take trees from state land. Some of the newer forest plantations on state land offer a tempting array of Christmas trees and it is only by the exercise of constant vigilance on the part of the rangers that thefts can be prevented.”
Indeed, after decades of reforestation with hundreds of millions of evergreens planted, considerable acres of the Adirondack Forest Preserve looked like a commercial Christmas tree plantation. Those looking to exploit the resource took notice. Large scale illegal timber harvest had mostly been curtailed by the 1930s, following the creation of the Forest Ranger force in 1912. Illegal Christmas harvesting was generally on a small scale but was sometimes commercial in nature with thieves selling their contraband.
Complaints from the public came about the grinches who strolled through the state land cutting and removing the forever wild trees for the holidays. District Forest Ranger James H. Hopkins, whose rangers covered the Saranac Lakes region, appears to have been the first supervisor to direct his men to stake out the areas of Christmas tree theft in the 1920s. He organized what would become a holiday tradition for the Forest Ranger force inside the blue line, the annual “Christmas tree detail” as rangers began to call it. Essentially rangers would conceal themselves and await the Christmas tree smugglers dragging their ill-begotten bounty to the road. Once apprehended, they would lose their prized trees, as well as their holiday spirit, and face a possible fine.
At that time, and at least into the 1960s, Forest Rangers often settled smaller violations via stipulation right on the spot. The ranger would explain the violation and penalty and then negotiate a settlement, even collecting the fine! The violator would walk away with a receipt of the fine paid and the ranger would transfer the collected fine to their supervisor.
In his 1936 annual holiday warning to the public, Commissioner Osborne explained the possible penalties for Christmas tree theft. “When persons take trees from the forest preserve they are guilty of trespass, which is a misdemeanor, and punishable by a fine of $100, plus 10 for each tree taken,” It is unclear how often such a hefty fine was paid. When a family was found taking a single tree they were often given a written warning by the local ranger for their first violation. They were also likely to be placed on the rangers’ naughty list and observed carefully the following holiday season. A second offense the following year would usually bring a fine.
Those who illegally harvested several trees to sell often found the ranger playing the role of scrooge. In 1930 Ranger E.N. Baker caught two men driving away with nine trees they stole from state land in Arietta. The men admitted they had cut them and were planning on selling them. It was the great depression and both men were unemployed and unable to pay the fine. In a plea deal they agreed to plant 1,000 trees in the area the following spring where they illegally took nine.
The Christmas tree detail continued on through the decades. Looking at the diaries of Ranger Gib Manley from Jay, one can see he put considerable time into the effort from 1949 into the 1970s, although his entries give few specifics. Bob Weitz, who was his neighboring ranger in Keeseville from 1967 to 1973, explained that the details were sometimes planned in advance and other times organized the same day. “Gib would call me and say let’s meet up this afternoon. You knew where the people were going it was always near a road. We would sit hidden, and sure enough out they would come dragging a tree. It wouldn’t even matter what kind of a tree it was.”
On through the holiday seasons, year after year the rangers patrolled the Adirondacks for illegal Christmas tree cutting. Each year fewer and fewer thieves were apprehended. It seemed that the rangers’ diligence had been rewarded with the public fully understanding the spirit of Christmas, the balsams remaining on the forever wild Forest Preserve, and the organized Forest Ranger Christmas tree detail fading into the memory of holidays past.
Photos: Above, Forest Ranger Gib Manley; and below, District Forest Ranger James H. Hopkins. Photos from the NYS Archives.