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Washington state man pleads innocent to tree theft

By Laura L. Myers

SEATTLE (Reuters) - A Washington state man charged with chopping down federally protected timber that was made into prized musical instruments pleaded not guilty to felony theft on Friday.

Reid Johnston, 40, who was arraigned before a U.S. magistrate judge in Tacoma, had been indicted last week on charges of theft of federal property and damage to federal property for trees the government said he cut down in the Olympic National Forest.

Federal prosecutors said the stolen timber included an 8-foot diameter Douglas fir, estimated by the U.S. Forest Service to be 300 years old, as well as cedar and prized maple trees.

"Certain of the maple trees that were stolen were cut into blocks and sold for the production of musical instruments, such as cellos and guitars," a statement from the U.S. Attorney's Office said.

Johnston has acknowledged cutting down the trees but believed they were from his family's 270 acres of private forest land in Brinnon, Washington, about 60 miles north of Olympia, the state capital, defense lawyer John Henry Browne told Reuters after the hearing.

Brinnon lies on the eastern edge of the Olympic National Forest, which occupies about 633,600 acres of the Olympic Peninsula in the northwest corner of the state.

The region's forest boundaries have not changed since the 19th century, prosecutors said in a statement, and a spokeswoman for the office, Emily Langlie, told Reuters "no amount of money can replace" the trees taken.

If convicted, Johnston faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

In 1999, a man from Elma, Washington, was sentenced to two months in prison, four months of home electronic monitoring and one year of probation for chopping down a tree containing a bald eagle's nest, in violation of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

(Editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Johnston)