UW News

April 7, 2022

UW documentary chronicles story of tree poacher accused of starting 2018 fire

Justin Wilkes looks up at trees with his back to the camera

“The Maple Cutter” is a new documentary from two University of Washington professors.Daniel Hoffman

A new documentary from two University of Washington professors tells the story of a man accused of starting a wildfire while illegally removing trees from the Olympic National Forest.

“The Maple Cutter” was produced by Lynn M. Thomas, professor of history, and Daniel Hoffman, professor of anthropology and of international studies at the Jackson School. Michael Sanderson, Thomas’ husband who is a lawyer and a photographer, was also a co-producer.

Federal prosecutors alleged that Justin Wilke started the August 2018 Maple Fire while destroying a beehive at the base of a tree he’d planned to cut down. The fire burned more than 3,000 acres of the Olympic National Forest near Hood Canal.

Wilke was searching for figured bigleaf maple, a wood that has a unique pattern and is often used in the crafting of musical instruments, particularly guitars and violins. Tree DNA evidence matched wood allegedly sold by Wilke to the remains of poached trees in the area where the fire started.

Wilke, who admitted to taking one tree but denied starting the fire, was convicted of multiple charges in July 2021, including theft of public property and trafficking in unlawfully harvested timber. The jury did not convict Wilke of the two counts related to the fire. He was sentenced to 20 months in prison, and he’s currently serving the final five.

Before his sentencing, Wilke met multiple times with the filmmakers. They followed him through the forest, capturing his thoughts on the surrounding trees while weaving together a story of rural poverty, addiction, the supply chain for forest products and the different ways people love and value the woods.

A final cut was screened at the UW on March 30. The documentary is the first project in the  Unthinkable Films series, sponsored by the Simpson Center for the Humanities. Unthinkable Films gathers UW faculty members “to develop short documentary films that speak and theorize on our planet’s cataclysmic, unpredictable or unprecedented future.”

Hoffman and Thomas hope viewers leave the film with an understanding of Wilke’s complex relationship with the forest.

“You don’t have to condone poaching trees or starting a wildfire to feel like it’s worth trying to understand a little bit more about Justin and the world he comes from,” Hoffman said. “You don’t have to apologize for him but can recognize that he is part of a backstory around this fire.

“We’re not going to be able to address the future of local forests if we don’t think about what it is that Justin represents and that he has a relationship to the environment. It’s just too easy to write it off, to everybody’s detriment.”

Thomas originally set out to compare rainforests in the United States and East Africa. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she shifted her focus to become more local. News of the Maple Fire trial caught her attention, and she decided to focus on it and figured bigleaf maple.

Lynn Thomas and Daniel Hoffman interview Justin Wilke next to a truck

Daniel Hoffman and Lynn M. Thomas interview Justin Wilke, right, for “The Maple Cutter.”Michael Sanderson

Wilke was enthusiastic about the project, and his charisma made an impression. The trio quickly realized the film would center him.

“Justin was such a good storyteller and so eager to talk,” Thomas said. “We were incredibly lucky that he wanted to talk to us and he had so much to say. We really enjoyed going into the woods with him and seeing the woods from his perspective.

“There are so many different elements of it, but what’s really important is the combining of aesthetics and the economics — for Justin, the beauty of the woods and their economic value are totally inseparable and intertwined.”

Hoffman, who started working in film more than a decade ago, launched Unthinkable Films. The idea is to give scholars in the social sciences and humanities a way to contribute to the conversation around climate change and the environment.

“It’s not always clear how to play a productive role as scholars in the humanities and social sciences,” Hoffman said. “How do you use these tools and areas of expertise that we have? It’s sometimes a little easier to see the logic of where the hard sciences fit into how you address climate change. We hope this opens the space to have conversations about what we can contribute. That’s a major part of what this whole project is about.”

“The Maple Cutter” will be shown at the UW for the second time on Friday, April 22 in the Allen Auditorium in Allen Library at 3 p.m. The documentary has also been submitted to multiple film festivals, and the creators are interested in holding further screenings.

For more information, contact Hoffman at djh13@uw.edu or Thomas at lynnmt@uw.edu.