Christmas tree thievery stinks County protects pines with lingering stench

December 17, 1997|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

Those evergreen trees on the Ritchie Highway median in Glen Burnie and Brooklyn Park may look tempting, but if you hack one down to cart home for Christmas, county officials have made sure you'll regret it for months.

Twice during the Christmas season, county maintenance workers spray pine and spruce trees in parts of the county with deer repellent -- which reeks with the scent of burnt hair.

"If [vandals] did steal a tree, we got them back," said David Dionne, a county park superintendent who started a similar program spraying trees at the B&A Trail Park in 1989. "It'd be sometime before the end of March and early April before they got that smell out of the house.

"Revenge is sweet."

Anne Arundel park and landscaping officials are the only ones in the Baltimore area who use deer repellent to prevent tree thefts. In Baltimore, forestry officials have used "Operation Ugly" for at least 10 years as a deterrent to woodcutters, said Jim Dicker, city arborist.

Dicker said every mid-November, city park workers spray parts of the best-looking evergreen trees with bright orange marking paint, which washes out after a few weeks with rain or snowfall.

"If [thieves] see something that has some ugly thing on it, they're not going to cut it down" for a Christmas tree, he said.

Anne Arundel County maintenance officials began spraying trees along landscaped "showcase" medians on such streets as Ritchie Highway and Dorsey Road and the lawns of libraries and senior centers in the late 1980s, said Michael Burton, a county horticulture supervisor.

Burton said officials began spraying when they noticed "anything that appeared to have a Christmas tree shape" was disappearing from these areas during the holiday season.

Each tree costs about $250 (including labor) to replace, he said.

At about $300 per spraying, officials decided the odorous deer repellent -- commonly used to deter the animals from chewing on plants -- was worth it. In addition, they post red and green signs along some medians to warn of the sprayed trees.

The repellent Burton uses -- Magic Circle -- is made with a tar-like substance that comes from heating sheep bones, said Jean Garrett, chemical sales manager at Ehrlich Chemicals Co. Inc., based in Wyomissing, Pa.

Garrett said private companies and New Jersey state officials also had used the repellent to thwart Christmas thievery.

She said when the product is sprayed on trees outside, the smell is faint, but gets stronger if the tree is taken to a warmer environment such as a heated house.

Even so, during the first few years, thefts still occurred, Burton said.

In 1990 and 1991, six to 10 trees were stolen each year. The number has dwindled since then to about one a year, he said.

Burton said in the early spraying years, someone reported spotting a fully decorated Christmas tree next to a trash container of an apartment complex near a median with sprayed trees.

"It had been sprayed, and you could smell it," Burton said. "I was very upset that it had been stolen, but I was also kind of humored that it wasn't successful."

At the B&A Trail Park, where there are about 1,000 trees, half of which are evergreens, Dionne said only two trees have been stolen since he began spraying in 1989. Dionne said he had researched other methods -- including spray-painting trees or trimming branches to make them less attractive -- before settling on repellent.

Dionne said park maintenance workers stopped spraying trees in 1994, because the evergreens, by then 15 to 20 feet tall, were protected by their size.

"Anybody with a house that big is not your typical tree thief," Dionne said.

But he said it was essential to spray while the trees were between 4 and 10 feet tall to keep thieves away. Some parts of the trail are so isolated that sneaking in at night to cut down a dozen trees for quick sale was just too easy.

Pub Date: 12/17/97

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