Originally published in The Economist.
An epidemic of tree-sap theft
Apr 13th 2013 | CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS | From the print edition
LANDOWNERS and forest rangers in Maine are facing a surprising problem: thieves have been illegally tapping maple trees and stealing the gooey sap to make maple syrup.
Rangers started getting reports of such thefts about five years ago, but they reached a peak during this year’s “sugaring season”, a four- to six-week period starting in March when syrup producers drill holes in their trees, insert small spouts and collect the sap in buckets.
The impact has been costly—and not only in terms of lost syrup, which sells for as much as $65 a gallon (3.8 litres). Badly drilled holes can cause decay that stains and ultimately ruins the wood, which is sold as lumber used to make veneer, flooring or kitchen cabinets. A single log of top-quality maple may be worth hundreds of dollars, but with damage from illegal taps—sometimes found in clusters of as many as 40 or 50, with spouts much larger than the 5/16-inch (8mm) prescribed by the industry—it may be worth a fraction of that amount and good only for firewood.
The culprits are thought mostly to be hobbyists making maple syrup for their family and friends, though officials acknowledge a rise in general thievery because of the slumping economy. In Maine, which is 89% forest, residents have traditionally enjoyed access to private land for hunting and other forms of recreation. They may not even realise that tapping trees may constitute tampering with private property.
Maple-syrup production is a particularly labour-intensive process. It requires about 40 gallons of sap to make just one gallon of the sweet amber liquid lavishly poured over breakfast pancakes. Last year Maine tied with New York as the country’s second-largest producer of syrup after Vermont, producing 360,000 gallons of the stuff.
But Lyle Merrifield, president of the Maine Maple Producers Association, says the state could expand its maple syrup production significantly and has mounted a campaign to do so. Last year the state had about 1.5m taps, but Merrifield says it has enough trees to support more than 40m taps. Unfortunately, he says, efforts to publicise the industry’s potential may have contributed to the recent fashion for stealing sap.
From the print edition: United States