Each March for the past 30 years, Don and Elaine O'Brien trekked into the woods that were once part of their farm in Maple Grove. Bearing taps and bags, they set about collecting sap from dozens of maple trees to boil into maple syrup. No one seemed to notice, or care.

The O'Briens, in their late 80s, harvested the sap believing the privilege was grandfathered to them back in 1981, when they sold 50 acres for what is now Medicine Lake Regional Trail in Three Rivers Park District.

Every year since they collected sap, in some years producing more than 100 quarts of syrup. They canned it in fruit jars to donate to their church benefit sale, or to share with family and neighbors.

Then last March a Park District official pedaling by on her bike on an unseasonably warm day happened upon the O'Briens' blue bags of sap. The O'Briens subsequently got a voice phone message from park police: Stop collecting the sap or risk a citation.

"That was our property and we had an oral agreement with them that we could keep tapping the trees," Elaine O'Brien said.

But Margie Walz, Three Rivers associate superintendent, said, "It's really private use of public property." The district, which found no record of a promise to the couple, is sympathetic to them while "trying to do the right thing protecting the public's interest," she said.

The O'Briens' bid to tap the trees again when the weather warms up was presented Thursday before the park district's parks and natural resources committee. The panel, after a brief discussion, recommended denying their request for a tree-tapping permit.

Walz, who discovered the tree taps on her bike ride, said longtime park district administrator Del Miller was at the land sale and "he did not promise it. I checked with our forester who was there at the time. He did not promise it. No staff would have the authority to make a promise like that."

Elaine O'Brien is just as adamant that a deal, even if not in writing, was made.

"We told them we made maple syrup there from those trees and they said we would be grandfathered in," she said. "It never entered our mind that it would be a problem. We thought we could take their word for it."

Pressured to sell

Although they appear on park district books as willing sellers, Don, 89, and Elaine, 87, said they felt forced into the sale and accepted a price rather than wrangle in court. They said they drew some consolation from being able to continue the family syrupmaking tradition.

"When they said we were grandfathered in, we took it for granted that that was the way it was," Elaine said. "We were not used to dealing with those kinds of people."

Three Rivers says it has never given individuals permits to collect sap from park trees and that park policy prohibits use of parkland for private benefit without compensation to the public. In recent years, the Park District has corrected more than 300 incidents of private encroachment on park property.

Walz said people have used parkland next to their property for everything from ice rinks to trash piles to sheds. The encroachment can go on for years before it's discovered and stopped.

Park District staff sought to turn the O'Briens' sap collection into a park education program but found no option that "would set an acceptable precedent for responding to future requests,'' Walz said. She invited the O'Briens to become volunteers in a park maple syrup demonstration.

Phillip O'Brien, who applied for the permit on his parents' behalf, said, "I don't want to go to war with the park board but this really aggravates me. It amazes me they can't make an exception for people who used to own this property."

The younger O'Brien said his father, a World War II veteran who fought in Europe, is upset that government has told him that he cannot tap trees on the land he felt forced to sell to the government.

The O'Briens' use of an all-terrain vehicle to haul the sap home is also a problem. Park District policy prohibits their use on or around trails because they can tear up the ground. In addition, park district forestry staff said the O'Briens' tap holes were too close together and "the height of the holes was not adequately varied on the tree trunk.''

Replied Elaine: "They are just being picky. We are disappointed in them."

Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711