Corvallis tree vandals target burl wood, prized in woodworking

Urban forester Jennifer Killian looks at a vandalized maple tree in Willamette Park in Corvallis.

On a mid-July morning in Corvallis’ Willamette Park, Callie Gunderson’s two-year-old son climbed a maple tree. Gunderson said playing in the park is the best way to encourage him to be adventurous.

“Not having these trees changes the experience — especially for the children that come here and explore,” Gunderson said. “Especially if a lot of these trees are native to Oregon and have obviously been growing here for a long time.”

But in recent months, a string of incidents targeting older trees, like the one where Gunderson’s son was playing, has left city officials concerned. These acts of vandalism are aimed at the trees’ burl wood, taken from bulbous growths and prized by artists for its unique patterns. There are ethical ways to harvest the sought-after burl wood, but the repeated thefts in Corvallis parks will kill the trees.

It’s not clear how tree burls form. Theories include physical damage, fungus or a virus. The raw, unfinished wood from a burl can fetch between 10 cents and $6 a pound, depending on its quality. The wood is used to make high-end products, including tables and bowls, and burl wood finishes can be found adorning luxury cars and private jets.

Corvallis urban forester Jennifer Killian said there have been at least 39 burls taken from 12 trees since December 2022. The thefts, which Killian suspects are being done with chainsaws in the middle of the night, limit the trees’ ability to carry nutrients and water from the roots to the crown, eventually killing them.

“I was utterly devastated when I saw the extent of the damage,” Killian said, standing under a tree with an approximately two-foot diameter chunk cut out of it.

Killian said trees play a critical role by providing shade, habitat for other animals and clean air.

“Every time you remove a tree through such a senseless act like burl stealing, you’re really robbing the park of this ecosystem service and the community of this valuable asset,” Killian said.

After the string of burl thefts made headlines earlier this year, the thefts appear to have abated. But occasional vandalism and theft remain a recurring problem in Corvallis’ public parks and greenspaces. Firewood is sometimes stolen, and a handful of newly-planted trees in the city are destroyed each year, most recently on July 17, which worries Killian.

“I get really upset when it happens because it’s such a senseless waste of resources and I start to care for these little trees,” she said. “They’re doing their best.”

Killian estimated the tree Gunderson’s son was climbing was about 75 years old, predating Willamette Park. The park, the city’s largest, is home to a popular off-leash dog park and disc golf course.

“It’s always surprising to me how people really take this type of area for granted,” Gunderson said, keeping an eye on her son perched in the tree between two big scars where burls once were. “Whether it’s spray painting or carving on trees or cutting off burls, I’m just disappointed that humans always want to impact nature that way.”

The same tree that Gunderson’s son was playing on will most likely come down as a result of the burl theft, Killian said.

There are ways to get burls that don’t involve theft and killing healthy trees.

Grants Pass-based burl artist and woodworker Greg Dahl says he works with private landowners to ethically source the material for his pieces. Often, he is able to cut them from trees that are expected to come down for construction or due to a tree’s deterioration.

“All of the people who sell us burl sign an agreement that this was acquired legally and at this address and that it wasn’t harvested in the riparian area, which is 100 feet from any kind of stream or water,” Dahl said.

He has even dissuaded potential sellers from cutting the burls from trees if it isn’t necessary.

“On healthy trees, that are beautiful, that have a place, I’ll try and talk them out of harvesting,” Dahl said.

With poachers threatening protected trees like California redwoods, illegal burl harvesting has become a point of concern for law enforcement, too.

Four years ago, Dahl said, he helped the FBI in an attempted sting operation targeting a prolific poacher.

“They should go to jail,” he said.

– Nidha Eakambaram, Lincoln High School

– John Pham, La Salle Catholic College Preparatory

This story was produced by student reporters as part of the High School Journalism Institute, an annual collaboration among The Oregonian/OregonLive, Oregon State University and other Oregon media organizations. For more information or to support the program, go to