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FOREST INK: Using tree DNA to battle tree theft

We often hear about solving murder cases many decades after the event using small amounts of DNA
Jim Hilton pens a column on forestry each week for the Williams Lake Tribune. (File photo)

We often hear about solving murder cases many decades after the event using small amounts of DNA collected at the crime scene so it should not surprise us if we can use the technique in forestry as well.

Thanks to one of my readers, I was given an article from Harper’s Magazine.

Author Lauren Markham (fall 2022) describes how DNA is being used to fight illegal logging in Washington. On the world market it is estimated that trafficking may account up to $150 billion dollars a year and as much as $100 million on Forest Service lands in the USA. Laws have existed for over a hundred years and fines are up to $250,000 but enforcement and conviction has been difficult because it is hard to prove where the confiscated wood originated.

This is about to change as scientists gather genetic information on forest stands around the world. It turns out that trees have “some degree of local history” recorded in their DNA which offers clues to where a tree grew before it was harvested. Law enforcement officers were able to show that samples taken from the seized lumber closely matched the trees tested in the Olympic National Forest where the theft was expected to have taken place.

It did cost $30,000 to collect the samples in this case but there was an incentive because the accused were also implicated in a forest fire in the same area which consumed 3,000 acres of pristine forest. While the defenders were unable to prove who started the fire the jury did hand out a twenty month sentence for unlawful harvesting of timber based on the DNA evidence. The success of this case no doubt influenced some volunteer groups like the Adventure Scientists to collect samples for a wide variety of endangered plants which will help with potential cases in the future. While big leaf maple was the tree that was poached in the trial discussed above there is concern for western red cedar, Alaska yellow cedar, coast redwood and black walnut which are often stolen.

Is there a problem in B.C. with tree poaching? According to Lyndsie Bourgon there is. CBC radio The Current, interviewed her last June about her new book. Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods. According to the author tree poaching accounts for an estimated $20 million per year in B.C. but at precise figures are hard to establish as it’s difficult to identify poached wood once it’s entered the supply chain.

As is the case in the USA we have the laws and can apply stiff penalties but fines are often only a few hundred dollars.

While many are calling for stiffer penalties Bourgon provides an interesting historical perspective on poaching. In the past poaching (of all kinds) was a type of protest against the rich land owners which to some is similar to the increasing gap between the rich and poor today.

The debate will no doubt continue as forest industry take overs increase and protecting our old growth is a major issue for many residents.

READ MORE:Oldest DNA reveals life in Greenland 2 million years ago

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