SALT LAKE CITY — Two men have pleaded guilty to trying to steal 600 pounds of wildflower seed pods in southern Utah's Zion National Park in hopes of a payday on the commercial market.
Cresencio Martinez-Guzman, 44, and Cresencio Lucena-Alvarez, 23, pleaded guilty to felony theft of government property and were sentenced to probation Dec. 7. They also admitted being in the U.S. illegally and agreed not to fight deportation.
The pair had apparently spent weeks in a remote portion of the park pinching Palmer's penstemon, a tall-growing native plant whose seeds are often used by government agencies for reseeding projects, according to court records.
They were arrested in September after Zion park rangers spotted them with several large bags of seed pods inside the park's western boundary. The commercial value of the pair's cache was about $25,000, according to court documents.
Commercial seed collecting is a bustling business in southern Utah, and it's legal on other federal lands with a permit — but not in Zion.
A ranger found nine bags of penstemon seeds while she was on patrol in August near an area called Black Wash.
She and other investigators returned to the area over the next several weeks and eventually found Martinez-Guzman, Lucena-Alvarez and a stash of seed pods, according to court documents.
They told investigators they were working with another man who had a permit, according to court documents.
Bureau of Land Management officials later confirmed that the other man had a permit to pick seeds on BLM land several miles away, outside Zion's boundaries, according to court documents.
Martinez-Guzman told investigators he was getting paid $50 a day to gather the seeds.
The pair were arrested and held until sentencing earlier this month. Matt Fisher, a special agent with the park service's investigative branch, said the men have been turned over to immigration officials. Their attorneys could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.
Seed collecting has become popular in recent decades in southern Utah, which features plenty of warm, dry weather and a long growing season.
The BLM issues permits for seed collection on its land and typically gets about 10 percent of the cut when they're sold to a commercial distributor, said Craig Egerton, a BLM natural resource specialist in Cedar City.
Many seeds end up back in government hands for post-wildfire rehabilitation work and landscaping along roadways.
Last year, the BLM office in Cedar City issued permits for about 6,000 pounds of seeds to be collected. A busy year is around 40,000 pounds, Egerton said.
"It can be lucrative. Some of these guys do really well," Egerton said.
The vast majority of collectors are legitimate and follow the rules, federal officials said, but policing illegal collecting can be difficult.
"There's so much public land in Utah, it's really hard to keep tabs on this stuff," Fisher said.
Palmer's penstemon, a short-lived native that produces showy pink flowers, is popular with government agencies because it grows fast, provides good groundcover, slows erosion and does well in arid conditions.
Fisher said Zion will keep the hundreds of pounds of seeds seized from the latest case for use later on revegetation projects.