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Environment

Film from UW professors explores a tree poacher, a wildfire, and a complicated story

A film crew talks with Justin Wilke as he stands behind a pickup truck. Filmmaker Lynn Thomas is asking him questions.
Michael Sanderson
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Filmmakers and University of Washington professors Lynn Thomas and Danny Hoffman interview Justin Wilke, who was accused of starting a 2018 forest fire. Though acquitted on those charges, he was convicted of taking trees illegally from Olympic National Forest.

A few years ago, a tree poacher named Justin Wilke was charged with starting a forest fire while trying to steal a tree. The new documentary "The Maple Cutter" takes a deeper look.

The Maple Fire burned 3,000 acres of the Olympic National Forest in 2018. Wilke and others were accused of starting it when they attempted to light a wasp's nest on fire while they were trying to remove a tree.

Wilke vigorously denied involvement in the fire, and was acquitted of those serious arson charges. But he was convicted of taking trees illegally.

In "The Maple Cutter," filmmakers Lynn Thomas and Danny Hoffman tell Wilke's story. To be clear, they don't endorse it — but they do think his relationship to the forest is worth your attention. For Wilke, the forest was a way out of hardship, and a chance to make some money. He says he loves and values the woods.

"There's so much that Justin says in the film about how he feels about this part of the Olympic National Forest," Thomas told KNKX. "It's hard to take away that he doesn't love being in that place, even if for him being in that place was partly destructive of it."

Thomas and Hoffman are professors at the University of Washington. Mike Sanderson is a lawyer and photographer, and happens to be Thomas' husband. All three are co-producers of the documentary, which is the first project in a series called "Unthinkable Films," in which UW faculty make short documentaries about the planet's future.

They spoke with KNKX All Things Considered host Ed Ronco. Listen to the full conversation above.

The film is not yet available for public screening, but has been entered into film festivals. They hope to make it publicly viewable soon.