Podcast Episodes

How National Parks Stop Thieves

If you listened to The Curse of the Petrified Forest, our episode on the strange happenings surrounding people who stole rocks from Petrified Forest National Park, you know that the park faced a major identity crisis – people thought all the petrified wood was gone. It isn’t, of course, it’s pretty much all still there – but theft of small stones is still a problem for the park, just as theft and vandalization are problems throughout the National Parks System. On this episode, we take a look at theft in another Arizona park, and how authorities are using old-fashioned detective work as well as 21st-century technology to catch would-be cactus thieves.


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Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode.

Saguaro National Park – NPS website

Theft Deterrence for an Arizona Icon – New York Times article on the tagging of the saguaro cacti

Video: Cactus thieves and fossil robbers are taking treasures from the national parks – PBS News Hour

Two men sentenced for theft of “music wood” timber in Olympic National Park – NPS Investigative Services Press Release

Busting Cactus Smugglers in the American West – The full story of Yevgeny Safronov in The Atlantic

Transcript

The America’s National Parks Podcast is sponsored by L.L.Bean.

This year, L.L.Bean is joining up with the National Park Foundation, the official nonprofit partner of the National Park Service, to help you find your happy place – in an amazing system of more than 400 national parks, including historic and cultural sites, monuments, preserves, lakeshores, and seashores that dot the American landscape, many of which you’ll find just a short trip from home. L.L.Bean is proud to be an official partner of the National Park Foundation. Discover your perfect day in a park at findyourpark.com.

In 2013, a man living on the border of Olympic National Park heard an unmistakable buzzing sound coming from the direction of the park late in the evening. He looked out his window and spotted three headlamps. Tree poachers were stealing one of our most valuable resources.

Tree theft is, in fact, often considered the new Ivory. As old-growth wood becomes more and more rare, its value increases. Somewhere between 15 to 30 percent of the global timber trade is conducted through the black market and linked to organized crime.

In this case, Olympic rangers arrived on the scene to find a bigleaf maple had been removed from the protected lands. Mature bigleaf maple is sought after as “tonewood” for use in guitars and other stringed instruments. It’s prized in part because of its “flame” or “quilted” fibers, which provides a shimmering effect when cut on the bias.

The next night, rangers caught Michael D. Welches, age 63, and two accomplices in the act. They had arrived with muffled chainsaws, planning to cut another tree. The value of the timber?  $8,766. Welches and his accomplices all served prison time for theft.

If you listened to The Curse of the Petrified Forest, our episode on the strange happenings surrounding people who stole rocks from Petrified Forest National Park, you know that the park faced a major identity crisis – people thought all the petrified wood was gone. It isn’t, of course, it’s pretty much all still there – but theft of small stones is still a problem for the park, just as theft and vandalization are problems throughout the National Parks System. On this episode, we take a look at theft in another Arizona park, and how authorities are using old-fashioned detective work as well as 21st-century technology to catch would-be cactus thieves.

65-year-old Yevgeny Safronov has collected cacti since the 1980s. In his Russian greenhouse, he keeps over 2,000 plants – most of which he has hunted. Almost yearly, he has lead hunting expeditions to the west, where cacti pepper the desert climates of portions of south and central America, and of course, the American Southwest.

He wasn’t quiet about it either. He’d blog in detail about the locations of the cacti, with photos of him in his safari vest, shirtless, with a gold chain and dark chest hair.

In 2015, authorities spotted a website advertising a trip to the U.S. organized by Igor Drab. It was to be a tour of national parks across the Southwest. Drab had been flagged as a potential cactus thief, and the investigators alerted a slew of wildland protection bureaus, including the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service.

Safronov, Drab, and three other tourists landed in Los Angeles – after being watched for at least six months by a team of federal agencies. They breezed through customs, rented a Chevy Tahoe, and headed towards Arizona – with the US Fish and Wildlife service on their tail. They checked into a KOA campground where they stayed in a cabin for the night, then drove a dirt road into the desert.

Safranov had a detailed booklet of GPS locations of plants he wanted to visit, culled together from previous trips. Agents witnessed the tourists steal the seed pod from a saguaro cactus. It was a criminal theft to be sure, but a saguaro produces more than a hundred thousand of seed pods a year. Investigators needed more evidence.

A few days later, a National Park Service ranger at Big Bend National Park spotted the white Tahoe in a campsite. The undercover ranger pitched a stakeout tent nearby. He struck up a conversation with one of the traverls as he was photographing the night sky. Once they had all turned in for the night, the ranger hid a GPS tracking device on the Tahoe.

The next day, the ranger followed the signal at a distance, spying on them as they drove to a remote area through a telephoto lens. When they got out, they rummaged around for 45 minutes, but the ranger couldn’t get a clear view. After they pulled away, he found that cuttings had been taken from a prickly pear cactus. A pad cutting from a prickly pear will sprout more pads once planted.

The party returned to camp. So did the ranger. He watched as the group sorted items in a plastic bag on their picnic table, and inventoried them in a notebook. Safronov was trying to push the pad of a prickly pear into a used Uncle Ben’s rice box from their dinner.

In the morning, the campers left. Only to be spotted again six days later and 900 miles away in Arches National Park, where two more undercover agents witnessed them removing a small plant.

When the tourists returned to LAX, Fish and Wildlife agents were there to open their checked luggage. They found seeds stuffed into socks, and whole cacti hidden in bags of jalapeño pepper – all told nearly 70 plants, cuttings, and seeds.

Meanwhile, a National Park Service ranger apprehended Safranov on the jetway, and through a translator, he admitted to having cacti in his luggage. He showed the ranger his notebook, pointing to the locations where he removed all of the individual specimens.

Safronov took full responsibility for all the thefts, and plead guilty in court. The judge ordered him to pay a fine of just $525.

There are 1,480 species of cacti, most of which are native to the US. 31 percent are threatened by many factors, like loss of habitat from urban sprawl and livestock grazing. But believe it or not, the primary threat is the black market. A 15-year-old study estimated that, in a three-year period, thieves illegally plucked 100,000 cacti from Texas alone. Most were smuggled into Mexico, and this was before the insurgance of the internet, which massively broadened black market sale opportunities.

It should go without saying that in our country it’s illegal to take plants from federal land. One of the most prized plants of the American Southwest is it’s most threatened. At $200 a foot, a lot of people are willing to pay a pretty penny for a statuesque saguaro cactus, with it’s arms pointed at the sky, to sit in their front lawn. Not many are willing to wait the 75 years it takes for them to sprout arms.  It takes a full ten years for a saguaro to grow its first inch. A saguaro is considered an adult when it reaches 125 years, and the average life span is 150 to 175 years. They can weigh 6 tons – about as much as a Ford F250 Super Duty – and they can reach the height of a five-story building.

So, not surprisingly, the wild saguaro in Saguaro National Park and the surrounding areas are ripe targets for poaching.

Saguaro cacti would be difficult to grow, even if it didn’t take so long. Because of their size and weight, thieves usually target plants that are around forty years old and five to seven feet in height. At that age and size, they fetch a considerable profit, yet can still fit on the back of a pickup truck.

Theft of plants from public lands in Arizona has been rampant for decades. The state estimated back in 1980 that 250,000 had been illegally pillaged in the previous year alone. But they’re also stolen from gardening centers and homes.

In January 2007, a Tuscon resident alerted Saguaro National Park that 17 saguaros had been stashed along a road at the park’s border. Plant poachers will often dig up the plants one night, only to return to haul them away. They may only be able to carry one saguaro per trip depending on its size.

Park Rangers determined that two of the cacti had come from the national park’s property, and the rest had come from county land. They surveyed the area and waited for the thieves to return. Gregory James McKee and Joseph Tillman were arrested and charged for violating the Lacey Act, which prohibits trafficking in plants and animals collected in violation of any law.

They plead guilty, and Tillman was sentenced to eight months in federal prison, while McKee was sentenced to six months of home confinement and community service. Tillman’s was one of the longest sentences ever for cactus-smuggling.

Cactus thieves are brazen. One group of smugglers was caught along a park road with a trailer full of eight saguaro in broad daylight.

Now, rangers at Saguaro National Park are taking a new approach to stop theft – deterrence. Many cacti in the park have been embedded with Microchip IDs, similar to those used to track lost pets.

The chips don’t broadcast a signal – they can’t alert rangers of a theft. But they can scan plants for sale with a specialized reader for the chip, which may make nurseries more skeptical of the plants they buy.

Officials said they have spent about $3,000 to implant chips in 1,000 saguaros along areas most accessible to thieves. It’s a small fraction of the 1.9 million saguaros in the park, but rangers hope that the chips will weaken the illegal market and strike fear in smugglers of getting caught with a chipped cactus.

Thieves are a threat to national parks across the country. Fossils, orchids, endangered animals, artifacts like arrowheads and other relics from indigenous people are all protected. Even pulling the bark off a tree can land you in a federal court. It’s important for all of us who visit public lands to practice leave no trace principles. Leave only footprints, take only memories. 

Saguaro National Park surrounds the modern city of Tucson. You can see these enormous cacti, silhouetted by the beauty of a magnificent desert sunset.  There are two districts, on either side of Tucson, each with their own visitor center that provides restrooms, water fountains, maps, hiking trails, and a driving loop.

There are over 150 miles of designated trails. The only campsites require a hike into backcountry wilderness in the East District. There is no form of running water. No vehicle camping is available, and cell service is virtually non-existent.

The park ranges in elevation from 3000 feet up to 8,000 feet, so temperatures can fluctuate, but it can get especially hot in the summer, over 105 degrees in the shade. Make sure to bring and drink plenty of water. Avoid the heat of the day by hiking before 10am and after 4pm. Both sunrises and sunsets can be glorious, with the tall, armed cacti shilouetted in the sun’s glow.   

For a special treat – the saguaro’s beautiful white, waxy flower – the state flower of Arizona – blooms late May through July.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, music credits, and more in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.


Music

Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

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