Peninsula man to be sentenced for tree poaching

TACOMA — A Clallam County man will be sentenced in federal court today for felling a big leaf maple tree on federal land near the Elwha River.

Michael Welches, 63, pleaded guilty last October to one count of depredation of government property for cutting the old growth tree with two companions near the abandoned Lake Aldwell boat launch in November 2013, court papers said.

Federal prosecutors are recommending a two-month jail sentence for Welches “given the damage to irreplaceable timber and the need to deter others from committing the same crime,” a sentencing memorandum said.

Welches will be sentenced in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington in Tacoma.

In a handwritten letter to the court, Welches expressed remorse for cutting the maple.

The federal indictment alleged that he, Matthew Hutto and Richard Welches fell and sectioned off a maple within the Elwha River restoration project area over six days in November 2013.

Lake Aldwell was drained in 2012 with the removal of Elwha Dam, part of the National Park Service’s effort to restore the Elwha River to its free-flowing, salmon-spawning state.

A neighbor reported hearing chainsaws in the middle of the night and seeing people wearing headlamps near the former boat launch on multiple nights in November 2013, court papers said.

An Olympic National Park ranger found a felled western big leaf maple and made arrangements with the property owner to call him if more activity occurred.

The neighbor reported hearing more chainsaws at 1 a.m. the next day, court papers said.

Law enforcement officers caught the trio cutting the felled tree, prosecutors said.

“They had muffled chainsaws, axes and headlamps,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Andre Penalver said in court documents.

“Law enforcement also found a receipt for the recent sale of wood from the defendant to Whale Bay Woods in Quilcene. That wood, later retrieved by law enforcement, matched the wood from the felled maple.”

A U.S. National Forest wood specialist determined the value of the felled timber to be $8,767. The tree had been bucked into 24-inch rounds, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest Area Measurement Specialist Jeffrey Penman said.

Michael Welches was convicted in 2004 of a misdemeanor, unlawful harvesting of forest products for cutting illegally on state trust lands, Penalver said.

Penalver added that theft and damage to forest products on public lands has reached “near epidemic proportions.”

“A sentence of two months would remind others that the courts value our federal lands and will punish those who do them harm,” Penalver said.

Hutto also pleaded guilty to depredation of government property and is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 16.

Richard Welches has not been prosecuted.

“I feel terrible about cutting the tree, especially when I found out it was in the Olympic National Park,” Michael Welches wrote in a four-page letter.

Welches, an avid outdoorsman who has worked in the wood industry since he graduated from Forks High School in 1972, said it was his understanding that the tree was on state land.

“I would have had nothing to do with cutting it if I had known it was in the park,” Welches said.

Welches cut cedar shake in mills and cut and sold firewood for decades, his letter said.

He ran a landscaping business in Sequim for seven years until the housing market crash of 2008, after which time he returned to the shake and firewood business.

Welches said he had been trying to save money to pay a portion of his restitution at sentencing.

Supporting letters described Welches as a generous person and friend who is there for others and contributes to his community.

“It is obvious from Mr. Welches’ own letter that he is embarrassed and remorseful at having committed this offense,” defense attorney Miriam Schwartz said in a sentencing memorandum.

“He tells the court that, ‘I am the one that made the wrong choice, and am now ready to do whatever it takes to make this right, even it it means doing jail time.’

“However, given Mr. Welches’ history, current situation and constructive attitude, defense submits there is no constructive purpose or benefit to a jail sentence in this case.”

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at rollikainen@peninsuladailynews.com.

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