Most people would consider a new career after being shot, and certainly after taking six bullets, but it’s all part of the job for one very dedicated supplier of wood veneer. Maryann Simpson tracks down the man who risks his life for VIP jet interiors
From humble beginnings in the state of Oregon, Jason Crapo, founder and CEO of Hi Tech Veneer, has built a life and a career as a world-leading, vertically-integrated purveyor of exotic wood veneers to private aviation. He supplies more than 150 different varieties of top quality wood to OEMs, MROs and smaller refurbishment specialists alike.
Now based in Indiana, Crapo claims to be the only aviation-grade veneer supplier who manages his own activities right down to the source. He locates and harvests his own trees from dozens of countries using his own connections, knowledge and equipment. He also ‘slices’ his own logs using state-of-the-art machinery, whereas his competitors mostly buy wholesale.
Crapo has been shot six times by rebels, cartels and would-be thieves in his decades-long pursuit of the world’s rarest and most valuable trees.
“I have had one [bullet] pass through my upper thigh,” he tells P1. “I got hit once on the edge of my elbow and two times in my [bullet-proof] vest. One of those broke my rib and the other destroyed a kidney, so I only have one good kidney left. Another time I took a bullet in the shoulder blade. That one came through the back window of my truck. Last time was about two years ago in Venezuela where they got me in the chest two times and my driver took one in the shoulder.”
Each brush was death, he says, was worth it. As Crapo is a man who would rather risk life and limb in cartel-controlled jungle to personally fell a tree, than see natural habitats and communities destroyed by the irresponsible clearing practices of corrupt overseas organisations.
According to Crapo, the logging business in South America is a lot like the drug trade, featuring cameos by a host of the same characters. Certain ‘unicorn’ woods, like the nearly extinct Brazilian Rosewood, can fetch the same price per kilo as cocaine. This makes illegal cutting and black market exchange of rare woods an appealing racket to dangerous people.
“If I cut down a tree and somebody knows it’s worth US$10,000, it’s an easy thing for them to steal and traffic,” says Crapo. “I need to float my log down the river to transport it and there are a lot of people along that river with bags of money they want to pay me for it. The trees are a natural resource, so if they decided to just kill me and cut off the ends of the log where I have my numbers marked, they could say that they found it themselves. It’s like digging up a diamond and sticking it your pocket.”
After nearly 20 years of emerging from perilous regions with superior logs (and the odd bullet wound), Crapo has learned a lot about how to play socio-political hardball in corrupt and unstable economies. His strategy is an artful combination of protocol observance, palm waxing, relationship building and, of course, arming himself to the teeth.
“We get our official permits for so many cubic metres to be pulled out. But we get those permits from the interior ministries of the countries we are in, and not from the drug cartels that are trafficking in the area,” he explains. “And it’s not just the drug cartels, but also people who just flat-out want your trucks or want your money. In 1996-97 it started getting dangerous and I got into my first firefight in ’98. I always carry a .45 ACP and wear a flak jacket. I can easily buy grenade-launchers and machine guns in these places. You can buy anything with money … There is nobody around to protect you but yourself.”
A family affair
By slowly cultivating friendships and trust, Crapo has, over the years, found himself under the protective wing of people in some pretty interesting circles; thus granting him access to areas that other loggers won’t go near. He has become second- and third-generation friends with some of the most powerful, infamous, and some might say criminal South American families. In many cases Crapo has introduced these families to his own – teaching his trade and even helping their youngsters access better opportunities in North America.
“I have a 19-year-old son who works at my company full-time,” says Crapo. “He knows three quarters of the groups that I work with. In some of these dangerous areas he is friends with the children and grandchildren of the guys that I became friends with many years ago. It’s not uncommon for me to bring their kids up to my place for the holidays and then send them back down to Argentina or Venezuela or Bolivia. In fact, right now I have a young man named Raphael from Brazil living in my home. He is from a prominent family in the area where I get my Santos Rosewood (a less-endangered, yet still incredibly rare and valuable species) and I’ve tried to give him a different life in America.”
On top of making nice with the mighty in lawless lands, Crapo has developed working arrangements with a lot of legacy loggers in advantageous areas. For example, if he wins a permit to harvest a certain rare variety of tree, he’ll often give half the haul to another enterprise. That way, if and when that firm obtains permission to cut a different species, they might return the favor. Furthermore, he’s added yet another layer of assurance to his legacy by teaching young men in the villages he frequents to earn their own living from timber.
Crapo hopes these connections – this groundwork – will keep his eldest son safe and prosperous in a dicey and dangerous vocation, when he eventually takes the reins of this unusual business. “I worry about [his safety] every day,” he admits. “All I can say is he wears a gun every day, even at the Indiana facility. We do training all the time and he has top notch equipment, even better than mine. But most of all, I’m hoping that the people I’ve trained in these areas over the past years can assist.”
In the late 1990s and early 2000s there was essentially a mass exodus of veneer slicing mills from North America and Europe to Asia due to costs. Crapo says that the careless clearing practices of Asian logging conglomerates has had a devastating effect on the world’s leading exotic wood habitats.
“They’ll get a permit to take out 50 square meters and go in and cut 200 acres to the ground. By the time anyone realises what’s been done, these guys are long gone back to Asia where they can’t really be touched. Then suddenly there’s a big glut of this one species up for sale as veneer market. It makes me want to cry.”
Crapo isn’t training his sons in the art of self-protection and ‘social networking’ exclusively. He is also making sure that they grow up with the knowledge of how to conserve the delicate ecosystems that produce the source of their livelihood.
“I will cut an average of one tree… or maybe two per acre,” he explains. “I cut out only the dominant tree in that area, and within a year thousands of seedlings from that dominant tree will flourish because some sunlight is finally hitting the tops of their leaves. I’ve been going back to the same acres now for 20 years because I just cut one here and one there. I leave trees standing that everybody else would cut down, because I want to come back in 10 years and get them when they become the dominant tree.”
Crapo also produces a small souvenir book about each of the exotic trees he cuts down to make luxury veneer. These books are ten by ten inches and tell the story of how and where the tree originated, how it was selected, prepared and removed, and include photos showing that the area in which the tree once stood is still a lush forest. He says many end customers really enjoy having these books to prove provenance of the wood and showing them to others.
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) some 46-58,000 square miles of forest are lost each year, which means about 36 football fields eradicated each minute. It’s a shame that there aren’t more people like Crapo in the veneer industry. With the way things are going now, wood, the fruit of the forest, may not be a companion on our evolutionary journey or private jet excursions for long.
Rare and gone
Found in Brazil, Bolivia and Belize. This wood is in the price range per kilo of cocaine, ivory, tortoise shell, and gold. If caught removing it from the forest, the penalties one faces are in line with what you would get for trafficking the aforementioned items.
East Indian Rosewood
Found in regions of Indonesia. The very high grades of this species are nearly priceless and are usually reserved for royalty and fine works of art on aircraft. The veneer leaves could be worth more than gold per ounce.
Carpathian Elm Burl
Found in Europe and surrounding areas. This tree is now extinct due to Dutch Elm Disease. The only way to clap hands on this wood is to find a tree already dead that happens to have a burl on it (a burl is a knotty protrusion, the result of the tree undergoing stress). This is about a one in 100 million chance. Then, for it to slice out to a high grade is even less likely. Value for a small pallet 4’x4’x10” could be worth over a million dollars once manufactured into an aircraft interior or work of art.