DULUTH, Minn. - Prosecutors in northern Minnesota have charged a man after conservation officers say he illegally cut down and harvested more than 1,000 birch trees from state-owned land.

David Allen Lawrence of Aurora is charged with one gross misdemeanor count of timber trespass on state lands, bringing with it a possible 1 year jail sentence and a $3,000 fine. It may be the first time in Minnesota history this crime has been prosecuted. 

"This is the first one I know of that's gone to criminal charges,'' said Lt. Shelly Patton, District 5 conservation officer surveyor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, told the Duluth News Tribune.

DNR and local conservation officers had become aware in recent months that someone had been cutting small diameter birch trees, known by some as 'poles', from public land. On March 17 DNR Conservation Officer Mark Fredin was driving down Tower-Biwabik Road near the Iron Range when he noticed a suspicious path leading into the woods. The officer stopped his vehicle and walked down the path, then heard the sounds of chopping and falling trees.

Fredin then made contact with two men who were cutting, and saw a large pile of birch trees about 4 to 6 inches in diameter. One of the men told Officer Fredin that David Lawrence dropped them off in the area to cut down the birch trees. The officer made contact with Lawrence, who told them he had been cutting in the area for three days, and was currently in possession of approximately 100 trees. Lawrence reportedly told authorities he had a deal to sell the trees to a man in Wisconsin. A records check showed that he had no permit to cut the trees. 

State Forestry personnel surveyed the location and determined that an estimated 1,200 birch trees had been illegally harvested, not 100 as Lawrence had claimed. They put the value of the loss at $3,411. 

Authorities in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin say illegal harvesting of birch trees has become a significant problem. They are sold online as decorations or used to create crafts and knick-knacks that are then sold.