One of the most significant forms of property theft occurs not in urban areas, but in forests. Illegal logging comprises up to 30% of the global timber trade—and up to 90% in tropical regions. As the value of forest products increases, timber trafficking becomes an ever more lucrative enterprise—yielding up to $150 billion annually. In the U.S. alone, tree poaching in national forests is estimated at $100 million—and that’s just a small percentage. According to Lyndsie Bourgon, author of Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods (Little, Brown, 2022), illegal timber harvesting has an annual economic impact of $1 billion nationwide.

Other adverse consequences of tree poaching include its carbon impact and deleterious influence on ecological systems. “When the trees disappear, so too do the animals, birds, and smaller flora and fungi that rely on them,” Bourgon writes. “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.”

Preventative and regulatory measures have thus far been largely ineffectual. As a result, tree theft is becoming a matter for law enforcement. DNA testing—a method long used to produce evidence in criminal justice cases—is becoming a viable way to track timber. Wood DNA analysis can help scientists link a tree specimen to its site, and thus, connect a questionably sourced piece of milled lumber to a deforestation crime scene.

Remnants of the Mary Rose, which sank in 1545. Using DNA, University of Adelaide plant geneticist Andrew Lowe matched the ship's wood to its original locations.
By Geni - photo by user:geni, CC BY-SA 4.0, Remnants of the Mary Rose, which sank in 1545. Using DNA, University of Adelaide plant geneticist Andrew Lowe matched the ship's wood to its original locations.

At the University of Adelaide in Australia, professor and plant geneticist Andrew Lowe developed a method to extract DNA from forest products. Lowe and his team successfully matched harvested wood specimens with their original locations—including oak samples from King Henry VIII’s ship, the Mary Rose, which sank in 1545. Lowe joined forces with sustainable construction expert Kevin Hill, founder of Double Helix Tracking Technologies in Singapore, as the company’s chief scientific officer. Double Helix works with a network of associates distributed across multiple continents to monitor the geographic provenance of wood products.

Like other forms of genetic testing, wood DNA analysis requires the processing of significant amounts of data. However, the technology is developing so rapidly that desktop-scaled machines are now available. The biggest challenge has been accumulating sufficient site information, given the vastness of forested areas that require sampling. When adequate reference databases have been developed, DNA testing has delivered the proverbial smoking gun. For example, in one 2015 case, the U.S. Forest Service determined that bigleaf maple samples were illegally sourced from Washington state’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest. In another well-publicized trial, USFS tree geneticist Richard Cronn helped link the poaching of maple trees to a location in the Olympic National Forest.

A bigleaf maple in Gifford Pinchot National Forest A bigleaf maple in Gifford Pinchot National Forest

Despite these successful examples, sourcing geographic data remains a challenge. In the recently published IAWA Journal article “Tracing the world’s timber: the status of scientific verification technologies for species and origin identification,” a team of researchers evaluated existing sample and location databases. The authors found that while reference data exists for 100% of 322 priority tree taxa (taxonomic classes), site-based information remains lacking. The team estimates it will take roughly 27 years to develop sufficient geographic data for these taxa. Nevertheless, organizations like the Forest Legality Initiative and Global Timber Tracking Network (GTTN) remain undaunted—aiming to expand DNA tracking capabilities worldwide with the help of tools such as the Open Timber Portal, a timber transparency platform, and World Forest ID, a geo-referenced wood sample database.

Intriguingly, Tree Thieves reveals that the conflict is not always a clear-cut issue. Offering a nuanced analysis of forest resource utilization and regulations, Bourgon argues that many poachers harvest timber due to extreme economic hardship—or because a forest was originally deemed a commons.

“People have ‘taken’ wood for centuries, but wood has also been taken from us, cloistered within fences and marked boundaries on maps,” Bourgon writes. “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.”

Thus, as the battle against illegal timber harvesting intensifies, an awareness of the socioeconomic motivations of tree poaching will help inform how to discourage the detrimental loss of forests and invite other means to support communities that harvest timber as a last resort.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.

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