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A northwest Iowa man who cut down and stole dozens of trees from state property — including one of the oldest bur oaks in the state — was ordered Friday to pay a fine of nearly $25,000, according to court records.
Jason Levant Ferguson, 41, of Rolfe, was found guilty
He faced up to five years in prison for the theft charge and one year each for the timber violations when he was sentenced Friday. But a judge suspended the five-year sentence and did not impose any incarceration for the timber violations, court records show.
District Court Judge Derek Johnson wrote that the sentence “provides for (Ferguson’s) rehabilitation and the protection of the community.”
Instead, the judge ordered Ferguson to pay a $430 fine for each of the timber violations, which when combined with a court surcharge totaled $24,725.
It’s possible Ferguson might be ordered to pay more for restitution at some point, the judge’s order said.
A forestry consultant estimated that the values of the stolen trees and the cost to restore the site — by replanting 55 trees — totals about $38,000, court records show.
The giant bur oak accounts for more than half of that total because it “cannot be replaced and has historical significance,” wrote Kevin Oetken, of Woodland Forestry of Monmouth, who estimated the values.
The tree was about 175 years old, Oetken determined. It was six feet wide at its base, about 95 feet tall, and was of comparable stature to the state record bur oak.
“The stump was sound with very little rot and could have lived even longer,” Oetken wrote.
Ferguson had claimed he was harvesting dead or dying trees from the public area — which is not far from his acreage — and that he would use the pilfered trees to build a new house.
His attorney unsuccessfully argued that Ferguson’s right to preserve his life by using the trees for shelter and heat is paramount to Iowa’s laws that restrict taking trees from public areas without state approval. He also argued that the 800-year-old English Charter of the Forest protected Ferguson from prosecution. The judge disagreed.
However, Ferguson was successful at fighting numerous felony drug charges that resulted from the tree theft investigation. Searches of his property uncovered evidence that someone was producing marijuana and methamphetamine, and Ferguson faced decades in prison.
But the judge determined that the search warrants were improperly approved and that the evidence obtained during the searches could not be used to prosecute him. Those charges were dropped.