Decorating a Christmas tree is one way to get into the holiday spirit.

Julie Rowe
Matthew Scott, an employee of Nichols Arboretum, shows the white fir tree that was found cut down in Nichols Arboretum last week. (SAM WOLSON/Daily)

But stealing that tree from the Nichols Arboretum can put you in jail for up to five years. Even though chopping down and stealing a tree from the Nichols Arboretum is a felony, arboretum staff and the Department of Public Safety say there have been about three tree thefts over the past five years during the holiday season.

In the hopes of nipping tree theft in the bud, DPS increases its security in the arboretum this time of year. Plakke said arboretum staff also patrol the grounds more frequently around Christmas to help deter tree theft.

It’s clear the 25-foot white fir that now lies on the arboretum floor was majestic once. But on Thursday, a group of people -or perhaps one ambitious individual – sneaked into the arboretum and lopped off six of the tree’s 25 feet. Arboretum staff members say the culprits made off with what is probably a perfectly-sized Christmas tree.

Today, the remainder of the fir tree lies on a frozen trail near the Washington Heights Street entrance, its trunk snapped like a matchstick. The rings of its stump suggest the fallen tree was about 30 years old, according to Jeff Plakke, a Natural Areas Specialist for the arboretum.

Plakke said he is troubled by the thefts.

“Most people respect the other living things in the arboretum,” Plakke said. “All it takes, though, is one criminal to come along and kill one of our trees.”

So far, the downed tree trail is cold. DPS spokeswoman Diane Brown and arboretum staff say they have not found the culprits.

Brown said it is important not to jump to conclusions about who might be responsible without evidence.

But Plakke said he has his suspicions. He said stealing a tree, or part of a tree, has become somewhat of a tradition among a few small groups of college students, likely fraternities.

“It’s been a student trend,” Plakke said. “For a long time, fraternities would come and climb trees and cut them down.”

Arboretum Director Bob Grese said that after one theft in the 1980s, arboretum staff used simple detective work and found the tree in a fraternity house near campus.

“They left a trail of needles,” Grese said.

The fraternity members had left a section of the tree trunk in their garbage. An arboretum staff member matched this section of the trunk to the stump left behind.

The arboretum sued the fraternity and won, and each member involved in the theft served a number of community service hours, Grese said.

A new fir tree will cost about $2,000 and may take more 15 years to grow to the height of the tree damaged last week.

“These trees are the living history of the arboretum,” Plakke said. “Just like all living things they’re unique and irreplaceable in their own way.”

Yesterday morning, arboretum staffers sat in the office and discussed what to do with the rest of the felled fir while “White Christmas” played quietly in the background. Staff member Patricia Beals had an idea.

“We could cut the branches and salvage them for a swag to hang over the front door,” she said.

Whatever doesn’t end up adorning the doors of arboretum offices, though, will likely find a less festive end: the wood chipper.

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