Could the Christmas tree you're buying be stolen from Utah's national forests?

In years past, forest rangers have reported extensive problems with the commercial theft of Christmas trees. On occasion, entire semitrailer truck loads have disappeared from public lands.But beefed up patrols this season have resulted in a noticeable decline in tree thefts, said Ron Sanden, forester with the Fishlake National Forest.

"There is a continual problem with Christmas tree thefts," Sanden said, "but we are doing a lot of work this year to prevent it."

The U.S. Forest Service has been "in a cooperation mode" with the Bureau of Land Management, the state Division of Wildlife Resources and state Lands and Forestry to patrol public lands, including regular air patrols.

So far this season, "Indications are it's not as bad a problem this year," he said.

Four or five years ago, theft was serious on Utah's national forests, Sanden said.

"These trees on the Fishlake are worth a lot of money to commercial dealers," he said. "The permits for some trees commonly sell for $15 each. On Beaver Mountain, the trees average $10 each. And at those kind of prices, it doesn't take a whole lot of trees to add up to a felony theft charge."

One thief recently spent three years in the Utah State Prison on a conviction stemming from the commercial theft of Christmas trees. "We consider it a very serious matter," Sanden said.

The Forest Service sells Christmas tree permits to commercial dealers, who harvest trees according to federal guidelines. This year, some 3,000 Christmas trees were harvested on the Fishlake alone.

While rangers are always on the lookout for the theft of hundreds of trees by unscrupulous dealers, another common problem is the theft of Christmas trees by individuals for personal use.

"Those are mostly misunderstandings," Sanden said. "They think the trees are theirs and they can cut them any time they want." Most of those situations are handled administratively.