The Current

Who is stealing trees from the forest? Problem has economic roots, environmental impact, says author

Lyndsie Bourgon explores tree poaching, and the social and economic factors driving it, in her new book Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America's Woods.

Tree poaching 'one implication' of shifting rural economies, says Lyndsie Bourgon

The stump of an 300-year old cedar that officials in the Regional District of Central Kootenay believe was poached in 2019. (Regional District of Central Kootenay)

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Writer Lyndsie Bourgon has seen first-hand the damage done by tree poachers in B.C.'s old growth forests, where once-tall Douglas fir, cedar or Sitka spruces have been reduced to "a stump in the woods." 

"Sometimes there is duff and branches left behind because the tree has been cut down and trimmed, and gotten ready for transport out in the back of a truck," said Bourgon, author of the new book Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America's Woods.

"And in some cases, there were actually pretty large chunks of the trunk left behind … for later retrieval," she told The Current's guest host Duncan McCue.

Bourgon first became aware of the problem almost a decade ago, when an 800-year-old cedar was taken from Carmanah-Walbran Provincial Park in B.C. The province saw a spate of trees illegally felled last year, believed to be tied to the soaring cost of lumber in the pandemic.

In an email to The Current, B.C.'s Ministry of Forests said it investigated 180 incidents of unauthorized tree harvesting in 2021. Numbers for 2022 have not yet been tabulated, the ministry said, but are expected to be lower, in line with falling lumber prices this year.

WATCH | Tree thefts spark calls for more enforcement:

Rash of tree thefts on Vancouver Island sparks calls for more enforcement

3 years ago
Duration 2:25
Featured VideoSome residents on Vancouver Island are calling for stricter enforcement and stiffer penalties following a recent rash of tree theft in the area, which may be linked to the rising price of lumber. Around 100 trees have been taken from a forest reserve this year, including valuable red cedar.

While the problem is well-known in B.C., Bourgon said it happens across North America, and is becoming a bigger issue on Canada's east coast, where old-growth black walnut and maple trees are being sought by poachers, who fell them in secret and drag them away to be sold.

"In North America overall, the conservative estimate is that poached timber is worth about $1 billion annually, and in British Columbia, that figure is about $20 million per year," she said, adding that precise figures are hard to establish as it's difficult to identify poached wood once it's entered the supply chain.

B.C.'s Forest and Range Practices Act prohibits the damage, destruction or removal of timber growing on Crown land, with penalties upon conviction of up to $1 million or three years in prison, or both. There are also administrative penalties of up to $100,000 per hectare, or $200 per cubic meter. However advocates say fines often end up being just a few hundred dollars, and have called for tougher penalties

A woman sits facing the camera. She is wearing a white shirt and round glasses. The background is outdoor, but out of focus
Lyndsie Bourgon has explored the history and motivations of tree poaching in her new book Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America's Woods. (Stacey Krolow Photography)

Ministry of Forests told The Current that its Compliance and Enforcement Branch has issued 966 penalties over the past 12 years, "resulting in fines of roughly $123,700 in violation tickets and over $1 million as the result of administrative hearings."

Bourgon said authorities rely on the public to report suspicious activity, or on mill operators to contact them if they're offered wood that looks like old growth, or that's from a protected area. Signs with tip-line phone numbers have been placed in forests over the years, as well as hidden cameras in areas where authorities think logging might occur. 

Who is stealing these trees? During her research, Bourgan found that the decline of small towns helped answer that question.

"Poaching happens usually in small towns, around protected areas. And those small towns really have struggled, coming out of the de-industrialization and the kind of slow down of the timber industry," she said.

"Poverty has been on the increase in these rural areas, as has hard drug use, particularly methamphetamine use," she added.

Bourgon said not all the poachers she interviewed identified with poverty or substance abuse issues, but law enforcement and forestry officials told her they saw it as a motivating factor, driven by social change. 

"It really showed how a shift in culture — and a shift in environmental conservation and our priorities — really affected this region," Bourgon said.

Tree poaching "was downstream of that … one implication of what has happened," she said. 

Historical poaching, as protest

Bourgon started writing Tree Thieves thinking it was going to be a true crime story, but said it quickly turned into a historical account about how tree poaching dates back centuries. 

Her research led her to 11th-century England, where "access to the woods was seen as a human right because the woods provided life."

"It provided materials for shelter, provided a home for wildlife that was then hunted, it was a place where people walked through," she said. 

That right to the woods began to be chipped away in the late 11th and 12th centuries, as woodland areas were designated solely for the use and pleasure of kings and aristocracy. 

Bourgon said people began to go into the woods to poach wood and animals at night, both to survive and as a form of protest against the resources that had been taken away from them.

A tree trunk lies in the woods, beside the stump where it has been cut down.
A poached Douglas fir on Vancouver Island, spring 2019. B.C.'s Ministry of Forests investigated 180 incidents of unauthorized tree harvesting in 2021. (Submitted by Lyndsie Bourgon)

In the 13th century, the Charter of the Forest — a companion document to the Magna Carta — reestablished the public right to the forest. 

But Bourgon thinks some of the modern-day poachers she interviewed "really felt the same way" as those poaching in protest, hundreds of years ago.

She said some people can feel sidelined by changes to the timber industry, or that their "particular appreciation of the woods is not being respected anymore."

In those circumstances, "you can really kind of latch on to this story of these poachers … and kind of taking from the rich and giving it back to your community," she said.

She added that even though much of the poaching in Canada happens in provincial parks and crown lands, "it still appears to many people that powerful decision makers have made the choice to take land away from common use."

She thinks public opinion is on the side of those fighting against poaching, but that the challenges in catching poachers gives them the upper hand. 

On the flipside, those poachers are living with "the kind of socio-economic divides that make poaching desirable and worthwhile," she said.

"That inequality … affects them most."

A tree stump in the middle of the woods, near a path
A tree poaching site in the Sunshine Coast Community Forest, in B.C., in October 2019. (Veronica Alice)

Old-growth forests irreplaceable 

Illegal logging also happens on a wider scale, such as when logging companies operate well beyond the areas allowed by their permits, Bourgon said.

"Often, forged paperwork kind of allows that wood to be sold to exporters, who then sell to manufacturers, which then export, again, that product back into North America," she said.

That wood ends up in the Canadian supply chain in the form of things like hardwood flooring, and musical instruments, she said.

The cover of a book that reads Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America's Woods, Lyndsie Bourgon.
Lyndsie Bourgon has explored the history and motivations of tree poaching in her new book Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America's Woods. (Greystone Books)

The environmental impacts are significant, especially when old-growth forests are targeted, said Bourgon.

"They hold a significant amount of carbon per acre … [and] are incredibly rich habitats of biodiversity," she said. 

But despite the fact that old growth trees are "by definition irreplaceable" in our lifetimes, or even the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren, Bourgon said it can be hard to get people to care.

There is a "disparity between protecting landscapes and flora ... as opposed to simply fauna — and charismatic fauna in particular: elephants, rhinos, lions and tigers," she said. 

"They're all in need of protection, but it often is a bit easier to argue for protection of animals."

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.

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