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Crime and Survival in North America's Woods
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LONGLISTED FOR THE 2023 PEN/JOHN KENNETH GALBRAITH AWARD FOR NONFICTION
FINALIST FOR THE NELLIE BY CHANTICLEER INTERNATIONAL BOOK AWARDS FOR JOURNALISTIC NON-FICTION
A gripping investigation of the billion-dollar timber black market “and a fascinating examination of the deep and troubled relationship between people and forests” (Michelle Nijhuis, author of Beloved Beasts).
There's a strong chance that chair you are sitting on was made from stolen lumber. In Tree Thieves, Lyndsie Bourgon takes us deep into the underbelly of the illegal timber market. As she traces three timber poaching cases, she introduces us to tree poachers, law enforcement, forensic wood specialists, the enigmatic residents of former logging communities, environmental activists, international timber cartels, and indigenous communities along the way.
Old-growth trees are invaluable and irreplaceable for both humans and wildlife, and are the oldest living things on earth. But the morality of tree poaching is not as simple as we might think: stealing trees is a form of deeply rooted protest, and a side effect of environmental preservation and protection that doesn't include communities that have been uprooted or marginalized when park boundaries are drawn. As Bourgon discovers, failing to include working class and rural communities in the preservation of these awe-inducing ecosystems can lead to catastrophic results.
Featuring excellent investigative reporting, fascinating characters, logging history, political analysis, and cutting-edge tree science, Tree Thieves takes readers on a thrilling journey into the intrigue, crime, and incredible complexity sheltered under the forest canopy.
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"We have mixed our labour with the earth, our forces with its forces too deeply to be able to draw back and separate either out."
Culture and Materialism
In the Past
Newton B. Drury: Executive director, Save the Redwoods League; fourth director of the US National Park Service
Enoch Percival French: First ranger-supervisor of Northern California Redwood State Parks
Madison Grant: Cofounder, Save the Redwoods League
John C. Merriam: Cofounder, Save the Redwoods League
Henry Fairfield Osborn: Cofounder, Save the Redwoods League
Edgar Wayburn: President of the Sierra Club (1961–1964)
In the Forest
Emily Christian: Redwood National and State Parks (RNSP) ranger
Terry Cook: Danny Garcia's uncle
Laura Denny: Former RNSP ranger
Danny Garcia: A former "Outlaw"
Chris Guffie: Also known as "the Redwood Bandit"
John Guffie: Chris Guffie's father
Derek Hughes: Another former "Outlaw"
Branden Pero: Former RNSP ranger
Preston Taylor: Bear researcher, Humboldt State University
Stephen Troy: Chief ranger, RNSP
Rosie White: Former RNSP ranger
In Humboldt County
Judi Bari: Earth First! activist
Ron Barlow: Lifelong Orickite; rancher
Darryl Cherney: Earth First! activist
Steve Frick: Former logger
Cherish Guffie: Terry Cook's girlfriend; Chris Guffie's ex-wife
Jim and Judy Hagood: Owners of Hagood's Hardware
Joe and Donna Hufford: Longtime Orick residents
Lynne Netz: Derek Hughes's mother
At night, the treacherous curves of northern California's Redwood Highway unfurl before the probing reach of headlights. With little warning as to what's ahead, it's easy to miss turnoffs, so a small truck navigates the highway slowly, inching toward May Creek through the pitch-darkness of a damp winter night in 2018.
Just after midnight, the truck turns onto a lush wayside. It tips slightly as the driver pulls along the left-hand side of a metal gate, the tires toppling a small pile of rocks. The ground is soft enough that the tire grooves leave a lasting imprint in the earth. The driver points the truck back toward the road. Then it's dark again.
A narrow clearing stretches for about 100 yards—an old, decommissioned logging road that's been left to rewild and grow over. Climbing down from the truck, the driver finds a short trail beneath his feet, each side of the path lined with sword fern and clover, wallpapered in layers of redwood bark, though none of that is visible in the darkness. The floor is so thickly carpeted with foliage that his steps are muffled as he walks forward.
The man is lanky, his hair buzzed short, and he wears a sweatshirt. He stands 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 chain saw. They walk through a thick tangle of branches and forest-floor debris, arms brushing up against 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; any stars that might peek through the thick Pacific fog are hidden by a thick treetop canopy.
They stop at the foot of a large, ancient redwood stump. One fires up the chain saw and the high-pitched buzz of the engine echoes loud across the clearing. No one driving along the Redwood Highway would be able to hear the strained noises of metal teeth biting into the deep ocher wood of the tree's trunk.
The trunk is about 30 feet in diameter and rooted at the edge of the hill. The man with the chain saw takes a short step down and leans into the incline. He 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 like a glacier calves bergs into water. The logger's companion stands guard, and throughout the night the pair barely talk. Eventually they amass a pile of heavy rectangular blocks, some of which they push down toward the truck, slowly flipping the sections as they flop down the hill. They load the wood into the truck bed and drive away.
Back in the woods, the centuries-old redwood trunk remains with a third of its body poached: a gaping wound.
The first case of tree theft I ever encountered occurred within the stands of ancient old-growth on the southwest shores of Vancouver Island, in Ditidaht territory. 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 as he walked 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, rising about 160 feet tall, could easily tip over. The wedges had shifted the tree from towering sentinel in lush rainforest to teetering public danger. BC Parks rangers were forced to down the cedar themselves. They left the tree on the forest floor to decompose, recycling back into the earth over the next hundred years.
It wouldn't last anywhere near that long: just 12 months later, most of the trunk was gone. After the tree was felled, poachers entered the park and sawed the trunk (or "bucked" it) into portable pieces, leaving a trail of sawdust and abandoned equipment behind. Ironically, by honoring their mandate of safety and conservation, BC Parks had made it easier for the tree to be stolen.
A local environmental group, the Wilderness Committee, sounded a public alarm about the poaching, and a press release sent out to journalists landed in my in-box. A decade later, no one has been charged under British Columbia's Forest and Range Practices Act with the crimes that took place in the Carmanah Walbran that night: unauthorized timber harvest from public property, and vandalizing timber. The cedar is long gone—sold to a local sawmill in the dead of night, or to an artisan who kept it in their shop, or turned it into shingles, or a clock, or a table.
Since then, I have watched a spate of wood poaching sweep North America: in the Pacific Northwest, the lush forests of Alaska, and the timber stands of the eastern and southern United States. Timber poaching happens everywhere, on vastly different scales, throughout the seasons—one tree taken here, another there. It has become "a problem in every national forest," according to forest officials, and it runs the gamut from the seemingly minute—cutting down a small Christmas tree in a park near your city, for example—to the large-scale devastation of entire groves.
In North America, the scale of timber poaching varies by region: In 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 the course of six months, then selling them to local mills. 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 rain forest. 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, meaning they mattered to someone and some place.
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 3,000 pounds in the bed of his pickup truck. Across the southeastern United States, poachers rake up and sell the needles from longleaf pine, a resource dubbed "brown gold." Boughs off tree limbs, mushrooms, grasses, ferns—all are illegally traded forest products. Sometimes the very tops of spruce or fir trees are lopped off and sold as Christmas trees, or the tips of branches removed and turned into potpourri.
Forests are managed on stratified bureaucratic levels that, at points, overlap and collaborate. There are private property owners and forests managed by logging firms. There are also regional forests that fall under the jurisdiction of municipalities, states, or provinces. Then there's the National Park Service, the Forest Service, the National Monuments; in Canada there are Crown lands, national parks, and nature reserves. In the United States, most forests are privately owned and managed as forests or timber land. But in the western half of the country, most forest land is held by the federal and state governments—70 percent of the forests there are publicly owned, compared with just 17 percent in the East.
It's easiest to understand these protective layers by considering the larger entity each organization falls under. For instance, the Forest Service is nestled within the Department of Agriculture. As such, the trees on Forest Service land are managed like a crop—a product that is grown and harvested and consumed. Other American agencies (the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the US Fish & Wildlife Service) fall under the Department of the Interior. But even beneath that umbrella, things get complicated—for instance, selective logging does take place on National Park and BLM lands. The US Fish & Wildlife Service protects fish, wildlife, and their natural habitats—but those fish might pass through a national park or national forest via a stream, their migration blurring the boundaries of responsibility. The poaching from these conservation areas is the most shocking—trees meant to be protected through their entire life cycle and beyond brought down, a stark example of the ways in which conservation can fail.
In North America, it's estimated that $1 billion worth of wood is poached yearly. The Forest Service has pegged the value of poached wood from its land at $100 million annually; in recent years, the agency estimates, 1 in 10 trees felled on public lands in the United States were harvested illegally. Associations of private timber companies gauge the value of wood stolen from them at around $350 million annually. In British Columbia, experts put the cost of timber theft from publicly managed forests at $20 million a year. 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. 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 organizations such as Interpol.
Timber poaching is legally classified as a property crime, but it's unique in its bounty and setting. Poachers prefer the term take to poach when it comes to trees, and it is indeed that: a taking of an irreplaceable resource. In North America, trees are our deepest connection to history, our versions of cathedrals and standing ruins. When they are poached, though, they become stolen goods, and are investigated as such. But it is one thing to link a stolen car back to its owner via paperwork or plates, and another to link poached wood to the stump it once stood on. In lush forests, those stumps are usually hidden behind a curtain of trees, or covered in moss, or buried in branches—in all cases next to impossible to find.
Placing a value on poached wood is likewise complicated: the effects of timber poaching quickly become more nuanced, 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, and British Columbia's Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park contains twice the biomass of lush, Southern Hemisphere tropical forests that are widely considered the Earth's lungs—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 destabilized, 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. 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.
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 tends to be easier than advocating to guard plants. But of the 38,000 species protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES)—the global registry of plants and animals that are exploited or endangered through trade—over 32,000 are flora.
The very nature of old-growth provides an opportunity to transcend that invisible line: in Redwood National and State Parksi in California, chief ranger Stephen Troy says, the trees are "the rhino horn of the American West." The same can be said of cedar and Douglas fir ecosystems, their branches dripping with spools of moss and their trunks towering into the sky. These are trees that invoke awe, through height and age and circumference. It is very difficult to stand in a grove of Sequoia and not be bowled over by their beauty.
This book primarily investigates tree poaching from national and provincial 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 spent years trying to understand why someone might steal one. My curiosity brought me face-to-face with a form of deforestation rarely discussed, which springs from some of the most pressing social issues of the 20th and early 21st centuries.
What draws me to this story is not the amount of money that 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 wonder how someone who lives surrounded by the crushing beauty of a redwood forest can simultaneously love it and kill it; can see themselves as so entwined with the natural world that destroying part of it comes to feel like another stage in its life cycle. Timber poaching is a large, physical crash of a crime, and it is rooted in a challenge that stretches across North America: the disintegration of community in the face of economic and cultural change.
Studying timber poaching quickly opens a window into the trickle-down effects of environmental and economic policies that disregard and marginalize the working-class people who not only live among the trees but rely on them to survive. It's a difficult tale—one tinged with both anger and beauty, arising from rampant expansion and desire. The forest is a working environment, and displacing that work deprives many people of money, community, and a uniting identity. Many tree poachers express a longing for something that a tree represents: the deep-rooted underpinnings of home. The ancient Greeks called this feeling nostos, the root word of nostalgia—a searching homesickness that comes from wrenching separation.
People have "taken" wood for centuries, but wood has also been taken from us, cloistered within fences and marked boundaries on maps. 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. So why might someone steal a tree? For money, yes. But also for a sense of control, for family, for ownership, for products that you and I have in our homes, for drugs. I have begun to see the act of timber poaching as not simply a dramatic environmental crime, but something deeper—an act to reclaim one's place in a rapidly changing world, a deed of necessity. And to begin to understand the sadness and violence of poaching, we need to consider how a tree became something that could be stolen in the first place.
i Since 1994, Redwood National and State Parks has comprised one national park (Redwood National Park) and three state parks (Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park, Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park).
and the Gamekeeper
"Robin Hood was just taking care of his, and his own."
"But a wild animal or a bird is nobody's property—it's 'fair game,' and them who thinks different thinks they own the very air."
—Bob and Brian Tovey,
The Last English Poachers
One spring day in April 1615, eleven people entered a stone building at the edge of a forest in England's Midlands and took their places in front of an assembled court. The group was there to answer for their crimes: all had stolen wood from the Forest of Corse, which they had used for things like brewing beer and baking bread. Having been caught, they reported to this swanimote, a court established for regulating, policing, and conserving the forest. In front of them sat 18 jurors; surrounding them, 22 commoners, villagers, and farmers watched the day's events. One by one, the accused answered for their crimes: cutting wood from pear and apple trees, lopping branches from a hazel, and in one case cutting chunks of wood from a tree known as Goblins Oak. Inklings of today's timber poaching ripple out from here.
The English word forest shares a root—for—with forbidden and with the Latin term foris, meaning outside. This makes sense: forest did not initially refer to a stand of trees or woodland, as it does today, but rather to a parcel of land that had been appropriated in the 11th century by William the Conqueror as a place where he and his compatriots could go hunting, and where others could pay for the privilege to do likewise. A sort of medieval country club, forests included more than woodland, and in some cases encompassed farmland, fields, or even entire villages or towns. When a forest was established, strict rules were placed on anyone who happened to live there: in order to preserve trees that could support a strong deer population, for instance, wood would no longer be free for the taking.
To counteract these land grabs, the 13th century brought the Charter of the Forest, a companion to the Magna Carta. Ushered in after King John, who disafforested land at the behest of wealthy barons who wanted easier access to land held tight by the monarchy, the Charter of the Forest outlined a way of life for commoners and woodlands, and allowed access to the essentials of life: food, shelter, water. "Every free man shall agist his wood in the forest as he wishes," the charter proclaimed. It was a manifesto for the commons, pushing back against the spread of royal acquisition.
By today's standards, the Charter of the Forest is a radical document, standing against the privatization of common land by the powerful, be they royalty or government. The charter placed limits on use and was one of the first environmental laws in history: it included animal rights and regulated hunting with dogs. Through it, the monarchy was required to return enclosed land to its subjects. Men who had been jailed for forest crimes up until that point were released, provided they pledged never to "wrong" the forest again. For centuries, all churches in England were required to read the charter aloud to the public four times a year.
Through the charter, the forest was defined as a common source of commodities or privileges known as mast, herbage, marl, turbary, and estover. It guaranteed permission to feed pigs from the forest floor (mast), to let sheep graze on herbage throughout, and to harvest honey. It granted the right to dig clay and sand (marl); to mine coal and peat (turbary) for fuel; and to build sawmills. The forest thus outlined was a place of refuge, with trees used as sanctuary, as waypoints, and as boundary markers—there was an acknowledgment that trees were an integral part of the commoner's life, and the forest was dubbed "the poor's overcoat," under which all means of survival could be found, including dead wood or entire trees from which to build houses, furniture, doors. The Charter of the Forest also outlined the bounds of estover—the right to collect firewood and timber for everyday needs. It referred to coppicing, a form of logging that cuts trees down to ground level, encouraging healthy regrowth.
By the time of the swanimote meeting in April 1615, however, the charter had long since been ignored—indeed, its promises had never been fully kept. The commons had dwindled through continued enclosure of private land, primarily by wealthy landowners who removed access to communal use. Even the word commoners had lost its power, becoming something of a pejorative instead.
As a result of these trends, taking wood had become a folk custom by the 17th century, and timber poaching had emerged as the most common form of property crime. Forests were now a place of folk crime, where estover was routinely exceeded and trees illegally harvested and made into charcoal. "Foresters" became "gamekeepers"—de facto security guards over private property that was formerly open for common use. (Whereas the story of Robin Hood has him dodging the Sheriff of Nottingham, in reality he most likely would have been slipping the grasp of a gamekeeper.)
Keepers used methods such as snares, tripwires, and mantraps concealed in hedges to keep poachers out. Anyone caught taking wood from private land—not only in the form of trunks and branches, but also fences, posts, and bark—would be punished, and cruelly at that: seven years in prison, or hands severed, or death by hanging. Poachers were sentenced and fined by "verderers" (who held lifetime appointments) at swanimotes held every 40 days. The crimes on which verderers passed judgment ranged from cutting branches to uprooting an entire oak.
- “A refreshing and compassionate warning about the perils of well-intentioned but overzealous environmentalism.”—New York Times
- “Tree Thieves is just an exceptional book. It's a gripping investigation into tree poaching, a remarkably compassionate study of the culture clashes involved, a thoughtful look at environmental values. But underlying all of that is Lyndsie Bourgon's lyrical reminder of everything we love and everything we lose in a world of vanishing forests.”—Deborah Blum, Pulitzer-prize winning author of The Poisoner's Handbook
- “Tree Thieves is a vividly written, fine piece of investigative reporting.”—The Los Angeles Review of Books
- “An astounding, essential read in our time of environmental and social crises. Tree Thieves exposes the astonishing realities of tree poaching and the dire consequences of excluding rural and Indigenous communities from preservation efforts.”—Kirk Wallace Johnson, author of The Feather Thief and The Fishermen and the Dragon
- “Supple, thoughtful prose that may remind you of Rebecca Solnit.”—San Francisco Chronicle
- "Bourgon vividly captures a hidden cat and mouse game playing out in some of the world's most iconic forests."—Sarah Berman, author of Don't Call It a Cult: The Shocking Story of Keith Raniere and the Women of NXIVM
- "Absorbing. Part social history, part true crime,Tree Thieves is a riveting tale of timber heists plaguing forests from the redwoods to the Amazon.”—Ash Davidson, author of Damnation Spring
- "Tree Thieves is both an absorbing true-crime story and a fascinating examination of the deep and troubled relationship between people and forests. From Sherwood Forest to the California redwoods to the Peruvian Amazon, Lyndsie Bourgon illuminates the violent conflicts over power, class, and identity that continue to shape and scar the forests we depend on."—Michelle Nijhuis, author of Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction
- “Tracking thieves, poachers, and capitalists, Lyndsie Bourgon masterfully takes on the role of detective shining a light on the complex and camouflaged world of the timber black market. The result is a meticulous investigation and a powerful testimony to the trees silently taken and the consequences of their fall that reverberate well beyond the forest.”—Harley Rustad, author of Lost in the Valley of Death
- “Tree Thieves is a deeply researched examination of the past, present, and future of our forests, told through stories of timber poaching. Lyndsie Bourgon shows us that we must take into account all the complexities of human-nature relationships if we are to have any hope of keeping our standing giants alive.”—Gina Rae La Cerva, author of Feasting Wild
- “A fascinating blend of history and boots-in-the-mud journalism, which manages to dig into ancient and thorny questions about who really owns wild land and who is allowed to live off it. To poach of course means to steal. But is wilderness preservation also a form of theft, only on a larger scale? This book does what all great books should: it leaves your mind broader, deeper, and more nuanced.”—Robert Moor, author of On Trails: An Exploration
- “An enlightening and well-balanced account of the potential effects of environmental protections on local communities.”—Kirkus Reviews
- “Bourgon’s thoughtful approach and sharp investigative reporting will give environmentalists, policymakers, and park lovers a new perspective on the consequences of prioritizing endangered environments at the expense of the people who live in them. Nature lovers, take note.”—Publishers Weekly
- On Sale
- Jun 21, 2022
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Little Brown Spark