Timber poaching: The secretive crime decimating North America’s forests

Timber poaching has become “a problem in every national forest,” with an estimated $1 billion worth of wood poached yearly in North America 

  • Jun 15, 2022
  • 1,731 words
  • 7 minutes
Photo: Alana Zaal/Can Geo Photo Club
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The first case of tree theft I ever encountered occurred within the stands of ancient old-growth on the southwest shores of Vancouver Island, in Ditidaht territory. One day in the spring of 2011, a hiker in British Columbia’s Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park noticed the smell of fresh sawdust in the air, and as he walked he spotted felling wedges—tools used to guide a tree’s fall in a particular direction—thrust into the body of an 800-year-old red cedar. With the right wind, the tree, rising about 160 feet tall, could easily tip over. The wedges had shifted the tree from towering sentinel in lush rain forest to teetering public danger. BC Parks rangers were forced to down the cedar themselves. They left the tree on the forest floor to decompose, recycling back into the earth over the next hundred years.

It wouldn’t last anywhere near that long: just twelve months later, most of the trunk was gone. After the tree was felled, poachers entered the park and sawed the trunk (or “bucked” it) into portable pieces, leaving a trail of sawdust and abandoned equipment behind. Ironically, by honoring their mandate of safety and conservation, BC Parks had made it easier for the tree to be stolen.

A local environmental group, the Wilderness Committee, sounded a public alarm about the poaching, and a press release sent out to journalists landed in my inbox. A decade later, no one has been charged under British Columbia’s Forest and Range Practices Act with the crimes that took place in the Carmanah Walbran that night: unauthorized timber harvesting from public property, and vandalizing timber. The cedar is long gone—sold to a local sawmill in the dead of night, or to an artisan who kept it in their shop, or turned it into shingles, or a clock, or a table.

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Since then, I have watched a spate of wood poaching sweep North America; in the Pacific Northwest, the lush forests of Alaska, and the timber stands of the eastern and southern United States. Timber poaching happens everywhere, on vastly different scales, throughout the seasons—one tree taken here, another there. It has become “a problem in every national forest,” according to forest officials, and it runs the gamut from the seemingly minute—cutting down a small Christmas tree in a park near your city, for example—to the large-scale devastation of entire groves.

In North America, the scale of timber poaching varies by region: In eastern Missouri, timber theft has become a frequent problem in Mark Twain National Forest, where in 2021 a man was charged with cutting down 27 walnut and white oak trees inside the park over the course of six months, then selling them to local mills. In New England, the primary victims are cherry trees. In Kentucky, the bark is stripped off the slippery elm tree for use in herbal remedies and diet supplements. Bonsai have disappeared from a museum garden in Seattle, palm trees from Los Angeles yards, a rare pine from an arboretum in Wisconsin, ancient alligator junipers from Prescott National Forest in Arizona. In Hawaii, koa trees—prized for their fine-grained red wood—are stolen from the rainforest. In Ohio, Nebraska, Indiana, and Tennessee, I found the stumps of black walnut and white oak. None of these trees was rooted in logging land—all had been afforded some measure of protection, meaning each one mattered to someone and some place.

In North America, it’s estimated that $1 billion worth of wood is poached yearly. The Forest Service has pegged the value of poached wood from its land at $100 million annually; in recent years, the agency estimates, 1 in 10 trees felled on public lands in the United States were harvested illegally. Associations of private timber companies gauge the value of wood stolen from them at around $350 million annually. In British Columbia, experts put the cost of timber theft from publicly managed forests at $20 million a year. Globally, the black market for timber is estimated at $157 billion, a figure that includes the market value of the wood, unpaid taxes, and lost revenues. Along with illegal fishing and the black-market animal trade, timber poaching contributes to a $1 trillion illegal wildlife-trade industry that is monitored by international crime organizations such as Interpol.

I wonder how someone who lives surrounded by the crushing beauty of a redwood forest can simultaneously love it and kill it.

Timber poaching is legally classified as a property crime, but it’s unique in its bounty and setting. Poachers prefer the term take to poach when it comes to trees, and it is indeed that: a taking of an irreplaceable resource. In North America, trees are our deepest connection to history, our versions of cathedrals and standing ruins. When they are poached, though, they become stolen goods, and are investigated as such. But it is one thing to link a stolen car back to its owner via paperwork or plates, and quite another to match poached wood to the stump it once stood on. In lush forests, those stumps are usually hidden behind a curtain of trees, or covered in moss, or buried in branches—in all cases next to impossible to find.

Placing a value on poached wood is likewise complicated: the effects of timber poaching quickly become more nuanced, complex, and devastating than property crime when considered ecologically. Public lands enclose some of the oldest remaining trees in the world. Their ability to store large amounts of carbon—the redwoods alone hold more carbon per acre than any other forest in the world, and British Columbia’s Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park contains twice the biomass of lush, Southern Hemisphere tropical forests that are widely considered the earth’s lungs—make old-growth trees a key species in our fight against climate change. As well, when old-growth disappears, the foundation from which it grew is destabilized, leaving landscapes more prone to flooding and landslides. Even if dead-standing (termed snag in the logging industry), old-growth provides an incomparable ecosystem for endangered species across the continent. When the trees disappear, so too do the animals, birds, and smaller flora and fungi that rely on them. Tree poaching, even on a small scale, has a far-reaching impact, contributing to a decline in environmental health and weakening our forests, leaving marks on the earth that will persist for hundreds of years.

In the world of conservation-law enforcement, though, an invisible line seems to divide flora and fauna. Arguing (and fundraising) to protect animals, especially “charismatic megafauna” such as elephants and rhinos, from poaching and illegal trade tends to be easier than advocating to guard plants. But of the 38,000 species protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES)—the global registry of plants and animals that are exploited or endangered through trade—over 32,000 are flora.

Author Lyndsie Bourgon is a writer, researcher, oral historian, and 2018 National Geographic Explorer. (Photo: Stacey Krolow)
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The very nature of old-growth provides an opportunity to transcend that invisible line: in Redwood National and State Parks in California, chief ranger Stephen Troy says, the trees are “the rhino horn of the American West.” The same can be said of cedar and Douglas fir ecosystems, their branches dripping with spools of moss and their trunks towering into the sky. These are trees that invoke awe, through height and age and circumference. It is very difficult to stand in a grove of Sequoia and not be bowled over by their beauty.

This book primarily investigates tree poaching from national and provincial parks and forests in the Pacific Northwest of the United States and Canada. These trees are only hours from my backyard in British Columbia’s interior, and I have spent years trying to understand why someone might steal one. My curiosity brought me face-to-face with a form of deforestation rarely discussed, which springs from some of the most pressing social issues of the 20th and early 21st centuries.

What draws me to this story is not the amount of money that the missing wood is worth, nor even the knowledge that a single missing tree has a negative impact on climate change, though both are crucial considerations. Instead I wonder how someone who lives surrounded by the crushing beauty of a redwood forest can simultaneously love it and kill it; can see themselves as so entwined with the natural world that destroying part of it comes to feel like another stage in its life cycle. Timber poaching is a large, physical crash of a crime, and it is rooted in a challenge that stretches across North America: the disintegration of community in the face of economic and cultural change.

Studying timber poaching quickly opens a window into the trickle-down effects of environmental and economic policies that disregard and marginalize the working-class people who not only live among the trees but rely on them to survive. It’s a difficult tale—one tinged with both anger and beauty, arising from rampant expansion and desire. The forest is a working environment, and displacing that work deprives many people of money, community, and a uniting identity. Many tree poachers express a longing for something that a tree represents: the deep-rooted underpinnings of home. The ancient Greeks called this feeling nostos, the root word of nostalgia—a searching homesickness that comes from wrenching separation.

People have “taken” wood for centuries, but wood has also been taken from us, cloistered within fences and marked boundaries on maps. Throughout history, removing land from community use often caused a wreckage, and while every poacher’s story is unique, they all act out of the simmering need that followed. So why might someone steal a tree? For money, yes. But also for a sense of control, for family, for ownership, for products that you and I have in our homes, for drugs. I have begun to see the act of timber poaching as not simply a dramatic environmental crime, but something deeper—an act to reclaim one’s place in a rapidly changing world, a deed of necessity. And to begin to understand the sadness and violence of poaching, we need to consider how a tree became something that could be stolen in the first place.

Adapted with permission of the publisher from the book Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods, written by Lyndsie Bourgon and published by Greystone Books in June, 2022. Available wherever books are sold.


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