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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

To Catch a Tree Poacher

Air Date: Week of

Orlando DeGuzman (day-gooze- MOHN) reports from Canada on efforts to crack down on the growing problem of tree theft. Police have teamed up with scientists to develop techniques for matching DNA from suspected stolen wood with the stump left at the crime scene.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In Canada, police are joining scientists to crack down on a growing problem: tree thefts. Thousands of huge old-growth trees are illegally cut and sold each year to a thriving black market for this precious wood. Investigators are developing a way to match DNA taken from stolen wood to the stump left at the crime scene. And officials hope that this new technique will deter thieves and speed up prosecutions. From member station KUOW in Seattle, Orlando de Guzman reports.


DE GUZMAN: The western coast of Vancouver Island is one of the most remote corners of British Columbia. Giant trees rise above the surf, their branches sopping up droplets from the dense fog funneling through the Strait of Juan DeFuca.


DE GUZMAN: This isolated coast is a prime target for tree rustlers. They fell the trees with special chainsaws outfitted with silencers, and float the huge logs to nearby mills.


DE GUZMAN: Half a mile from the coast, the sweet scent of freshly-split cedar permeates the air. Hal Zech of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police inspects a crime scene he discovered recently. He's dwarfed by a massive cedar stump 12 feet in diameter, wider than a city sidewalk.

ZECH: You'll see beside you, there are some four-foot-long blocks. They were cut specifically for music wood. It is only good from old-growth wood because the growth rings are so close together that it's very tight-grained without any imperfections in it.

DE GUZMAN: Hal Zech was able to catch up with the thieves before their lot was shipped off to cello and violin makers in Austria. He says the growing underground market for rare wood has fueled a rash of tree theft cases across the province. Hal Zech says they've grown into semi-organized crime rings.

ZECH: And cedar, it's easily movable. All you need is a pickup truck, a chainsaw, and an axe. They'd go in and cut up a bunch of their stuff one night, and then the next night they would go back to the site with a five-ton cube van and enough bodies to fill it within an hour, and it's out of there, gone in an hour.

DE GUZMAN: The problem has gotten so bad that Hal Zech spends all of his time on patrol playing cat and mouse with these thieves. Recently he was involved in a high-speed chase, through switchbacks and abandoned logging roads.

ZECH: During the process of chasing them, one of the passengers that was in the vehicle began throwing out these cedar blocks at the police car that was chasing them, you know, which I was driving. And it's quite an unnerving experience, this constant matter of dodging these blocks as you're trying to stay behind and trying to get road blocks set up. So we gave up.

DE GUZMAN: More often than not the suspects get away. Last year, in British Columbia, tree rustlers made off with about $20 million of the province's timber revenue. It's also a huge problem in the U.S. In Washington State alone, officials estimate that poachers steal about a million dollars a month. Jerry Hunter with the BC Ministry of Forests says he's investigating at least 100 cases at any given time.

HUNTER: We've got over 100,000 miles of forest roads that we need to patrol. We are responsible for almost a quarter billion acres of forested land. So, we've got a small work force. We also have one of the longest coastlines in the world. All of those make it a very big challenge for us.

DE GUZMAN: And unless the poachers are caught in the act, it can take police months to gather evidence. But a scientific breakthrough is about to change that. In a lab at the provincial capital Victoria, researcher Eleanor White is extracting DNA from a piece of wood.

(Clicking sounds)

WHITE: There's lots of DNA in the foliage. There's also lots of DNA right into the wood. We've been able to extract DNA from growth rings in heartwood laid down 210 to 250 years ago. The farther in the tree you go, the more degraded it is, and the less you're able to get out. But nevertheless, it's still there.

DE GUZMAN: Dr. White got involved in the war against tree thieves one day, when she got a call from a frustrated parks ranger. The ranger found that a bunch of thieves made off with his favorite cedar tree.

WHITE: He was just really, really mad. And he said, it was at the time of the O.J. trials, you know. He said, "What we need is DNA fingerprinting like they use in the courts." He said, "If we could DNA-match them, we'd be in business." So I sort of thought that's pretty wild, and then maybe, you know, why not?

DE GUZMAN: After Dr. White extracts the tree's DNA, the next step is to find genetic patterns that set apart different populations of cedars, hemlocks, and firs. This information would be used to map British Columbia's forests into different genetic regions so they can trace where the trees came from.

WHITE: The evidence that you take to court is that this tree's genotype is very rare. We found this tree genotype in the back of the truck. We found exactly the same one on the stump. It's rare, you would only expect to see it at one in five billion in the population.

DE GUZMAN: Genetic matching is now aimed at individual thieves with chainsaws. But officials hope to use the technology to audit entire timber companies suspected of cutting beyond their private holdings: so-called white-collar timber thefts. Little is known about how much is lost to this type of crime. Jerry Hunter with the BC Ministry of Forests says DNA matching could also be used to stem the global trade of illegally cut logs.

HUNTER: The use of the DNA isn't restricted just to coniferous trees. And in many cases where there is timber poaching or tree theft, it can be used to show whether or not the timber is legitimate. If it said it came from Thailand, that it did in fact come from Thailand and not out of the virgin forests of Borneo.

DE GUZMAN: DNA matching is in its final trials. And Jerry Hunter says it should be ready for use to catch thieves by early next year. He also expects the courts to readily accept the technology, because it's very similar to human DNA matching. For Living on Earth, I'm Orlando de Guzman.



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