Maine Faces Increase in Unusual Crime: Illegal Tapping of Trees for Sap

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Although it seems like an odd thing to steal, there is a high number of people reportedly stealing sap from trees in Maine.

Because the syrup is pricey at $50-a-gallon or more, the burglars are hoping to make a big profit.

In Maine, syrup is big business between late February and mid-April, when the days are warmer and the nights are colder, making the sap rise and fall within the trees.

To take advantage of this, thieves are going onto private property and draining trees of their sap by using large drill bits and PVC piping.

This has homeowners angry as the thieves are damaging the trees and making them more susceptible to disease and decay by creating large holes in them.

Industry standard is to use 5/16 of an inch drill bit to drain them, but these thieves are using 7/8-inch drill bits and are often making four taps instead of two.

While this is making them more susceptible to disease, it also automatically makes the tree lose its value. Many of those trees would have been used to make cabinets or furniture, but when they have the giant holes in them, they can only be used for pulp.

"If you're talking dozens of trees with illegal taps that have suddenly been lowered potentially to firewood, the impact on the landowner's wallet could be in the thousands," Ranger Thomas Liba said. 

The illegal tapping is happening all over the state, with thieves pulling up on the side of the road and drilling holes into whichever trees are closest. They use buckets, milk jugs and other containers to catch the sap.

"For us, it falls into this big category of people not showing respect for adjacent property. They probably wouldn't dream of tapping their neighbor's trees," president of Katahdin Forest Management, LLC, Marcia McKeague, said.

But it seems many thieves have no shame, as a cemetery in eastern Maine was the site of a recent sap theft.

"Doing it at a cemetery is sacrilegious and disrespectful. It freaked my husband out because his family's buried right under one of the trees," neighbor Carmen Small said. "That was the first year they'd been put in trees at the cemetery, and that's what ruffled people's feathers."

Liba said it is likely no one has been charged for tapping the trees yet, but one man who was caught tapping a tree is working with a mediator and landowner to make amends.

"I think they're viewing it as an extension of being able to go out and use property without permission," Liba said.

In Maine, people have enjoyed a long tradition of open access to land for hunting and fishing. 

Yet as people begin to experience more and more illegal taps on their land, many are starting to question whether the tradition should continue.

"These thefts highlight how a small percentage of the population can wreck it for the rest. Sap theft is a problem but it speaks to the larger problem of respect for private property rights," Maine Department of Agriculture's John Bott said.

Sources: Daily Mail, Ottawa Citizen