Saturday, April 06, 2013

Thieves Down East

According to the authorities, the current environment and circumstances together have led to an uptick in thefts. Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise: after all, you have an increasingly valuable commodity, large amounts of unattended property, and cold nights with moderately warm days. The first two are understandable as contributing factors in any crime. But you might well wonder why weather has anything to do with it. Well, it's an element because those conditions are the perfect ones to cause maples to ooze. And the theft that's on the increase concerns the base ingredient for syrup. Bottom line: somebody's stealing sap.

In a post on the Maine Forest Ranger Facebook page, including a picture of Ranger Thomas Liba (Badge number 4123) at a "Sap Theft Complaint" site, landowners are reporting the violation after walking their property to find tubing and collection bottles affixed to with their trees without permission. Interestingly, in spite of the value of the sap, the rangers report that most of the landowners are more concerned with the damage done to the trees themselves: "We have seen cases where log quality trees are being tapped improperly, with left-open drill holes when the operation is complete. These holes leave an opening for insects and disease." Besides that, the thieves are also slobs: "There is also litter often left behind at these sites."

Still, in spite of the owners concern for their underlying property, it's the sap itself that is big business. As reported by the official government agency "Statistics Canada/Statistique Canada," our neighbors to the north, the world leader in this area, produced "maple products expressed as syrup" in 2012 of around 7.8 million gallons, worth around $315 million dollars at the then average price. It's such an important part of Canada's economy that much as we have oil stashed underground in case a war breaks out and we suddenly need our own secure supply of energy, they have a "strategic syrup reserve" to cushion price swings, or in case residents suddenly have an unquenchable appetite for waffles.

That kind of big business can also lead to big crime. In 2012 there was a heist of about $18 million worth of syrup from a warehouse in Canada. That theft was the stuff of movies, discovered when an inspector accidently knocked a barrel supposed to be full of maple goodness and thought it felt light, only to discover the contents had been siphoned off and replaced with water. It took a number of months, but most of the missing 27 million kilos was eventually recovered. That was good news for breakfast lovers everywhere, as the total heist would have been enough to put a tablespoon of topping on 183 million pancakes.

But back to the locals. Rangers Down East are finding sap theft rising up their agenda as the price of the commodity increases. While the exact amount needed varies based on the type of maple tree, you generally have to boil down about 40 gallons of sap or more to make one gallon of syrup. While the official average price in December for syrup was about $39 a gallon, current retail prices are $40, $50 or even $60 plus. That works out to a price somewhere between $1600 and $1900 a barrel. Compare that to an equivalent measure of oil at about $96, and you can see why the term "liquid gold" isn't too far off the mark.

Speculation is that the tough economy has driven more and more Mainers from hearty outdoorsmen and women to hearty outdoor felons. And it's behavior that seems to be spreading. Why else would the state legislature also be considering Bill LD421, "An Act To Prohibit the Unauthorized Harvesting of Wild Mushrooms and Fiddleheads." Seems that residents of Vacationland not only pilfer sap from trees on private land, but stop along the road and gather fiddleheads for salads and soups. Said Representative Tim Marks, Democrat of Pittston, "I've been a victim of fiddlehead theft for years."

For the Maine Rangers, it's an ongoing problem. Said Jeff Currier, the regional head who oversees activities in southern Washington County as well Hancock, Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, "It's a statewide issue and it's a growing issue." And they better get it under control before order in the state completely disintegrates. After all, if it's sap today and fiddleheads tomorrow, who knows where it will stop?


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes waffles more than pancakes. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. 

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