Who is poaching our trees – and why is no one stopping them?

·13 min read
Redwood trees like these are ‘the rhino horn of the American West,’ according to one ranger. The same can be said of cedars and Douglas firs - Courtesy of Redwood National and State Park
Redwood trees like these are ‘the rhino horn of the American West,’ according to one ranger. The same can be said of cedars and Douglas firs - Courtesy of Redwood National and State Park

On a damp winter night in 2018, a silver truck navigates the treacherous curves of northern California’s Redwood Highway, inching toward May Creek in pitch-darkness. Just after midnight, it turns on to a wayside and pulls alongside a metal gate, tyres toppling a pile of rocks. The ground is soft enough that the tyre grooves imprint the earth.

A narrow clearing stretches for about 100 yards – an old, decommissioned logging road that’s been left to rewild. Climbing down from the truck, the driver finds a short trail lined with sword fern and clover, wallpapered in layers of redwood bark, though none of that is visible in the darkness. His steps are muffled by foliage. The man is lanky, his hair buzzed short; he wears a sweatshirt. He stands fidgeting in the dark clearing, waiting for the truck’s passenger to join him. The only light shines from headlamps.

Both men start to climb a nearby hill, one toting a chainsaw. They walk through a tangle of branches and forest-floor debris, among the red alder and vine maple. They are not going far, only about 75 yards, heading east and uphill from the highway and clearing. There is no official trail here, no campgrounds nearby; the stars are hidden by the treetop canopy.

They stop at the foot of an ancient redwood. One fires up the chainsaw. No one driving along the Redwood Highway would be able to hear the strained noises of metal teeth biting into the deep ochre wood.

The trunk is rooted at the edge of the hill. The man with the chainsaw begins to slice the base of the trunk vertically, on the side that faces away from the faint footpath. His work is meticulous and neat: he carves squares with straight edges. Slowly the trunk is cleaved into fragments, falling to the forest floor. His companion stands guard, the pair barely talk. Eventually they amass a pile of large rectangular blocks of wood, which they load into the truck bed, before driving away.

Back in the woods, the centuries-old redwood trunk remains with a third of its body poached; a gaping wound.

Redwood National and State Parks, California - Getty
Redwood National and State Parks, California - Getty

In North America, it’s estimated that $1 billion worth of wood is poached yearly, much of it exactly in this way. In this rare instance, the thieves were caught, fined, and sentenced to community service. But more often than not, the poachers go unpunished.

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 organisations such as Interpol. The Forest Service, the agency that manages America’s national forests and grasslands, has pegged the value of poached wood from its land at $100 million annually; in recent years, the agency estimates that one in 10 trees felled on public lands in the United States was harvested illegally.

Associations of private timber companies gauge the value of wood stolen from them at around $350 million annually. In British Columbia, experts value the cost of timber theft from publicly managed forests at $20 million a year.

Tree poaching from native woodlands tends not to take place on this scale in the UK – for one, the towering old growth that provides financial incentive to poach in the Pacific Northwest is not as plentiful over here. But illegal wood does inevitably cross our borders in other ways.

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. The United Nations Environmental Programme estimates that illegal logging accounts for somewhere between 15 and 30 per cent of the overall timber trade. That illegal wood inevitably makes its way into our homes – right now, the UK meets about 80 per cent of its consumer demand for timber products through imports.

According to the research firm Forest Trends, direct imports from countries deemed ‘high risk’ for illegal logging (like Democratic Republic of Congo, Papua New Guinea, Ukraine, Brazil and Russia) have increased by 59 per cent over the past decade.

My decade-long poaching investigation

I have spent the last decade investigating a small part of this global problem: tree poaching from national 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 travelled around the world, sat in the backs of rangers’ trucks, and walked along poachers’ paths, to understand why someone might steal one.

Studying timber poaching opens a window into the trickle-down effects of environmental and economic policies that disregard and marginalise people who not only live among the trees but rely on them to survive. In the Pacific Northwest, for example, where old-growth trees are often taken, many of the poachers I spoke to are former loggers – or the children of former loggers who lost their jobs.

What really drew me to investigate timber poaching, however, was not the amount of money 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 wondered how someone who lives surrounded by the beauty of a redwood forest could kill it.

A ranger shows cuts made on a 1,000-year-old redwood tree outside Orick, California - alamy
A ranger shows cuts made on a 1,000-year-old redwood tree outside Orick, California - alamy

The first case of tree theft I ever encountered occurred within the stands of ancient old-growth on the south-west shores of Vancouver Island. 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 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, towering about 160ft tall, could easily tip over. The wedges had shifted the tree from towering sentinel to teetering public danger.

BC Parks rangers were forced to down the cedar themselves. They left the tree on the forest floor to decompose, intending it to recycle back into the earth over the next 100 years. But it wouldn’t last anywhere near that long: just 12 months later, most of the trunk was gone. Poachers entered the park and bucked the trunk into portable pieces, leaving a trail of sawdust and abandoned equipment behind.

Ironically, by honouring their mandate of safety and conservation, BC Parks had made it easier for the tree to be stolen.

A decade later, no one has been charged under British Columbia’s Forest and Range Practices Act with any of the crimes that took place that night: unauthorised timber harvest from public property, and vandalising timber. The cedar is long gone – likely sold to a local sawmill in the dead of night, or turned into shingles, or a clock, or a table.

Since then, I have watched wood poaching sweep North America. It has become ‘a problem in every national forest’, according to US forest officials, running the gamut from the seemingly minute – cutting down a Christmas tree in a park, say – to the large-scale devastation of entire groves.

The biggest trees in the world, the coastal redwoods of northern California, grow to 380 feet. - Getty Images
The biggest trees in the world, the coastal redwoods of northern California, grow to 380 feet. - Getty Images

In North America – which exports 59 per cent of the UK’s wood pellets for fuel – the scale of poaching varies by region. In south-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 six months.

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 were rooted in logging land – all had been afforded some measure of protection.

Deep in the woods, there is other natural theft, too. Moss is sold to florists for about $1 per pound; in one case a poacher was caught with 3,000lb of the stuff in the bed of his truck.

Across the south-eastern United States, poachers rake up and sell the needles from big-leaf pine, a resource dubbed ‘brown gold’. Boughs off tree limbs, mushrooms, grasses, ferns – all are illegally traded forest products. Sometimes the tops of spruce or fir trees are lopped off and sold as Christmas trees, or the tips of branches removed and turned into potpourri.

The complexities of law enforcement

The problem is how to police it. Timber poaching is legally classified as a property crime and when trees are poached, they become stolen goods, and are investigated as such: it is one thing to link a stolen car back to its owner via paperwork or plates, but poached wood must be matched to the stump it once stood on. In forests, those stumps may be hidden behind a curtain of trees, or covered in moss, or buried in branches – next to impossible to find.

Whereas a theft from an urban area leaves investigators with the option to examine evidence left behind, in a forest that evidence – sawdust or evergreen needles or deciduous leaves – is easily degraded or simply blows away. Then there’s the physical danger: a park ranger or law enforcement officer alone in the woods makes a vulnerable target.

Precisely for this reason, most rangers focus instead on stopping and searching vehicles for suspected purloined wood as they travel local roads and highways.

Placing a value on poached wood is likewise complicated: the effects of timber poaching quickly become more 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 – 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 destabilised, 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. In British Columbia and Washington, the northern spotted owl and marbled murrelet only live in the branches of old-growth forests – those species almost went extinct as old-growth was felled to clear-cut logging.

Tree poaching, even on a small scale, has an ancestral impact, contributing to a decline in environmental health and weakening our forests, leaving marks on the earth that will persist for centuries.

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 appears to be easier than advocating to guard plants. But of the 38,000 species protected by CITES – the global registry of plants and animals that are exploited or endangered through trade – over 32,000 are flora.

Stephen Troy, chief ranger of the Redwood National and State Parks, California, says the trees there are ‘the rhino horn of the American West’. The same can be said of cedars and Douglas firs.

What the poachers said

During my investigation I spoke to some alleged poachers and found many to have compelling stories; some told me that they turned to poaching after the decline of logging.

Redwood poaching, in particular, can be seen as a stand-off between those with a green agenda from outside the region, and local blue-collar workers whose identity and economy had fallen victim to it. At Redwood National Park, one poacher I met, known as the ‘redwood bandit’, had been accused of stealing large knobbles of redwood trunk known as ‘burls’, to hawk them to tourist shops, where they are sold as ornaments.

Ultimately, the most practical conservation must involve, rather than be imposed upon, local communities, just as it now is with ivory and rhino-horn poaching in parts of Africa. So many of these anti-poaching efforts are now focusing on community and social-economic balance because you have to understand what’s driving the poachers. Trees are not really considered along the same lines even though they are just as valuable, and traded similarly. And they are endangered too.

Author Lyndsie Bourgon - Stacey Krolow Photography
Author Lyndsie Bourgon - Stacey Krolow Photography

There is, thankfully, precious little tree poaching in Britain. But according to Jade Saunders at Forest Trends, when it comes to the trade in illegal wood, this country was until recently ‘in a pretty poor state’. Unlike France or Germany, the UK doesn’t produce the forest products, like timber and paper, that it consumes: ‘We import a lot.’

Only 15 years ago, the WWF slammed Britain as the world’s third-biggest importer of illegal timber. Since then, however, we have gone a good way to cleaning up our record. That process began, says Saunders, a decade ago, when the European Union Timber Regulation (EUTR) came into force: ‘The UK was an architect of that.’

Post-Brexit, the EUTR has become the UKTR, but it continues to demand that companies perform due diligence in sourcing their wood. Initially the regulation produced a rash of what Saunders called ‘dodgy documents’. But soon it was able scientifically to pinpoint timber’s origin, and paperwork could no longer mask the truth.

Saunders cites the example of Myanmar teak, prized for its use on the decks of yachts. ‘In the past you would have seen it coming into Germany, into Britain. Now, none is coming into the UK. There has been impressive enforcement.’

It’s not a perfect picture: ‘Our penalty regime is [rubbish],’ says Saunders. When, in 2013, the British furniture company India Jane was found to be selling illegally harvested timber, the fine was just £5,000.

And it’s unlikely that an insatiable appetite for readily accessible, trendy and disposable wood products will be quelled any time soon. Hand-in-hand with that desire is an increasing disconnect from how those products are made – by the time wood reaches us, it has often been processed beyond species recognition. It’s flatpacked and glossed, sometimes painted. Who can say with certainty what precise species our tables, our picture frames, our musical instruments are made of?

Edited and abridged extract from Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in the Woods, by Lyndsie Bourgon, out 7 July (Hodder & Stoughton, £25). Preorder a copy now at books.telegraph.co.uk

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