Nancy Perkins, Deseret Morning News
Wally Stout examines an exposed section of petrified log in Washington County. Huge petrified logs have been hauled away, the BLM says.

ST. GEORGE — Bureau of Land Management officials are investigating dozens of illegal dig sites in an ancient petrified wood forest not far from the small town of Virgin in Washington County.

"This is a very intrusive, unauthorized take of petrified wood," said Russell Schreiner, a geologist with the St. George BLM office who collected evidence at several of the dig sites with BLM Ranger Mark Harris. "Regardless of how many individuals did this or what people think about collecting petrified wood on public lands, this is not acceptable. Especially in Washington County."

Individuals can legally collect up to 25 pounds of petrified wood a day and no more than 250 pounds in a year with a permit issued through the BLM. The free petrified wood must be retrieved without the use of power equipment or explosives and can only be taken for personal use. No commercial operations are allowed, and the environment must not be damaged.

"We do not sell petrified wood (through the BLM) in Washington County," Schreiner said.

The missing petrified tree trunks first were discovered by Wally Stout, who lives on a 320-acre ranch above the area under investigation. Stout said he was able to give BLM rangers enough evidence to get the ball rolling on catching the person or people responsible for the thefts.

"A lot of this petrified wood is gem quality. When you see the massive, beautiful petrified logs that have been taken, you'll be sick," Stout said during a recent tour of the area with a Deseret Morning News reporter. "People have been taking little pieces of petrified wood from this area for a long, long time. But the current, ongoing flurry of activity is of a large scale."

Stout, 64, retired to the family ranch a few years ago and has kept a close eye on the environment ever since. As a boy, he and an older brother, Wynn, got to know every nook and cranny of the desert landscape they called home. Each brother recalled a fondness for searching out the unique petrified logs and noting their location near the ranch. Some of their favorite petrified trees are now missing, Stout said.

"You can go in any direction and find places where someone dug up and took out these massive, petrified logs," said Stout. "It's everywhere you look."

Evidence gathered at the scene includes tracks from bulldozers and off-road vehicles, freshly dug trenches with sections of petrified logs now missing, rock markers indicating new dig sites, as well as a variety of trash and several fire pits. Cedar and pinyon pine trees were cut down by someone intent on taking a petrified log, and they left behind shards of rock and skid marks where heavy mineralized tree trunks were dragged across the clay dirt.

"This petrified wood is spectacular stuff. It comes in every color of the rainbow," said Stout. "This is a national treasure. It can never be replaced."

Museum-quality pieces of petrified wood are commonly sold at rock shops and other outlets for several thousand dollars, while smaller pieces can be purchased for less than $100. A quick search of the Internet reveals the value of polished or rough-cut petrified wood can add up to big bucks.

Petrified logs on the BLM land that were 2 to 3 feet in diameter and more than 60 feet in length are now gone, replaced by long, empty trenches, Stout said.

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"They've been coming in at night and doing the worst of it," he said. "They've just raped this whole area."

Once the investigation is complete, said Schreiner, the BLM must decide whether to file criminal or civil charges against the individuals involved.

"There are a number of ways to resolve something like this," he said. "A lot depends on if we do catch who did it and what their reaction is. We know of other incidents like this on state lands but nothing on this scale."

Anyone with information about this case should call the BLM St. George Field Office at 435-688-3200 and ask for Schreiner or BLM Ranger Mark Harris, who is leading the investigation.