A 70-year-old man from Grand Rapids, Minn., who cut and stole thousands of black spruce tree tops from the Chippewa National Forest and sold them to make Christmas decorations pleaded guilty Friday to one count of theft of government property in U.S. District Court in St. Paul.

From October 2008 to October 2014, Joseph Leon Edminster cut more than 2,700 tree tops, according to a news release from U.S. Attorney Andrew M. Luger. They were worth at least $24,000 in total.

Cutting or damaging timber is prohibited on National Forest land without proper authorization. Edminster didn't have the "authority to take the tree tops from federal lands," the release said.

Edminster would sell the tops for $1.50 to $2.50 each to various wholesale vendors, who would then sell each top for up to $6 each to retail outlets in Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois. (The retail cost for individual spruce tops ranges from $2.50 to $7.50 apiece, depending on the height.)

"We will vigorously pursue those responsible for such acts, dedicating any and all investigative resources needed in order to bring these matters to a just conclusion," said Darla Lenz, the Chippewa National Forest supervisor. "The public can rest assured that this matter has been resolved and we will continue to protect our national forests."

Black spruce, a North American pine species, is widespread in the northern United States and Canada. It can be found in northern and northeastern parts of Minnesota, extending as far south as northern Anoka County.

The case, prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Provinzino, was a result of an investigation by the U.S. Forest Service's Law Enforcement and Investigations division.

Karen Zamora • 612-673-4647

Twitter: @KarenAnelZamora