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Grand Rapids man pleads guilty to theft of tree tops from Chippewa National Forest

ST. PAUL—A Grand Rapids man pleaded guilty to one count of theft of government property Friday after prosecutors say he stole thousands of black spruce tree tops from the Chippewa National Forest.

According to a news release from U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger's office, Joseph Leon Edminster, 70, pleaded before a U.S. district judge in St. Paul. Edminster stole more than 2,700 of the tree tops between October 2008 and October 2014, the release said.

After stealing the tops, Edminster would sell them to wholesalers for $1.50 or $2.50 each for use as Christmas decorations. The wholesalers would then sell them to retail outlets in Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois, according to the release.

The retail cost for spruce tops ranges between $2.50 and $7.50 depending on height and are often sold in bundles, which are then sold for as much as $36.99. The release claims that Edminster stole at least $24,199.50 of tree tops from federal land.

According to Chippewa Forest Supervisor Darla Lenz, harvesting tree branches can be done with permits and is quite common. Cutting the tops off of spruce trees, however, is generally not permitted because of the damage it can cause to the trees.

"Cutting the top damages the tree and can kill the tree, essentially," Lenz said. "If you're cutting a small tree, you could either damage the tree or kill it."

The U.S. Forest Service's Law Enforcement and Investigations Division investigated the case.