Lyndsie Bourgon is the author of Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods.
Last spring, cedar and Douglas fir trees were disappearing at an alarming rate from forests on Vancouver Island and the lush rainforests of British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast. The trees – some of them standing within the bounds of city or town limits, some rooted in community-managed forests, others on provincial Crown lands – were being poached, one by one, cut down and sold illegally. On the southeastern coast of Vancouver Island, a forest near Duncan, the North Cowichan Municipal Forest Reserve, saw almost 100 trees poached during a five-month span. In one case, 50 Douglas firs were taken at once, in what one forester called “a concentrated effort” to chop down larger swaths of the forest.
Stumps were left behind in the wake of these thefts, often surrounded by sawdust and shorn-off branches. Often, tire tracks on the forest floor showed the sites had been disturbed by trucks or ATVs that had been driven right up to the trees. In many cases, local hikers and walkers stumbled upon the sites by accident, then reported them to local resource officers or the RCMP.
Just as news of this increase in poaching on the island’s eastern shore emerged, protests against clear-cut logging were ramping up on the other side of Vancouver Island, at the headwaters of the Fairy Creek watershed, near Port Renfrew. Protest encampments were erected in the summer of 2020 and blocked logging firm Teal-Jones from accessing roads to the last parcel of unprotected old-growth trees on the island. By the summer of 2021, the protests had reached a peak: So many people had joined the roadblock – and so many had been arrested for doing so – that it became the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history.
From my vantage point in the B.C. Interior, it appeared that the province’s roiling relationship with its forests had come to yet another boil. A heatwave swept the region that summer, and forest fires engulfed entire towns. As old-growth trees were being cut down – both legally and illegally – B.C.’s forests became a flashpoint.
Warnings about tree poaching made headlines in 2021, but these thefts have been steadily increasing since at least 2018. In 2019, I shadowed two B.C. natural resource officers on a patrol in the forests that surround Nanaimo; over the span of a few hours, we saw three Douglas fir poaching sites along one stretch of road. In all cases, the sites were near the road and relatively obvious.
Between that visit to Nanaimo and the North Cowichan poaching last spring, the problem worsened. In 2020, the Sunshine Coast Community Forest reported so much poaching that it was called an “epidemic” – the forest manager estimated that almost 1,000 trees had been stolen. In one instance, the management team found trunks with machinery still lodged in the wood. Some trees had been partly sliced but not felled, leaving towering trees that could fall at any moment.
Timber poaching is not unique to B.C.; it has also been on the rise in the United States, particularly in the forests of Washington State and Oregon. U.S. officials have called it “a problem in every national forest” – in the past, the U.S. Forest Service has estimated that US$100-million worth of timber (equivalent to 10 per cent of America’s trees) is stolen from public land each year. The last time the issue was investigated, in the early 2000s, the scale of the problem was estimated to be closer to $1-billion when it included poaching from national parks, reserves and privately owned land across North America.
But even these statistics are dwarfed by the international scale of timber poaching and illegal logging, which is a US$152-billion global trade, according to Interpol. Wood is poached on a massive scale from old-growth and tropical forests from the Amazon to Eastern Europe and enters our homes in almost every form conceivable: hardwood flooring, coffee tables, picture frames, incense sticks.
In North America, though, the market for this wood is split between everyday utility and high-end artisanal production. Much of the poached timber ends up being sold as firewood, posted online through social media or advertised locally and on roadsides. Sometimes, it gets made into goods such as fence posts and shingles.
But there is also demand that hinges on the inherent beauty of wood. Poached timber is taken to mill operators who are willing to turn a blind eye to missing paperwork or dubious-looking logs and can quickly sell the wood to manufacturers and artisans. A lot of this wood comes from some of the oldest trees in North America, and because it is old, it’s beautiful and valuable. Maple, for instance, is in high demand for items such as musical instruments. Douglas fir is often manufactured into bespoke furniture such as live-edge bars and tables.
Demand for both firewood and wood products, paired with a surge in the price of lumber, has created the perfect conditions to steal a tree. Even before mill stoppages in the early days of the pandemic led to a surge in demand and prices for lumber, wood was already increasing in value – in 2018, market watchers clocked record highs in Douglas fir prices. The price of lumber continued to skyrocket into 2020 and 2021, though the market has begun to cool.
Law enforcement, forest managers and local citizens interested in quelling timber poaching argue that the financial penalties are just too low, making the risk worthwhile. While the fine for poaching wood from provincial Crown lands in B.C. can be as much as $1-million, in most cases poachers are fined $200 or less. And while thousands of “forest crimes” (the most common are timber theft, illegal harvesting and arson) were reported in the decade prior to the increase in 2021, documents I accessed through a freedom-of-information request showed that only 728 tickets were issued for removing or destroying wood in that time.
At the North Cowichan Municipal Forest Reserve (and other similar tracts of conservation land on Vancouver Island), the community has stepped up its patrols from once a week to every single day in a bid to deter poachers. But it’s difficult, in such a vast and thickly forested region, to cover enough ground. The region’s poaching does not seem to have slowed since last year, either. Last month, just a couple of kilometres from the edge of the reserve, a poacher was caught sawing up logs and loading them into a U-Haul trailer. It was a less lucrative day for the thief, but too late to save the trees.
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