Tree DNA thwarts black market lumber

How the genetic code of flora helped catch timber thieves.

  • A bigleaf maple tree in Capitol Forest near Olympia, Washington. Tree poachers have scraped bark from its surface to reveal the quilted figure they covet, leading investigators to suspect it might have been the poachers’ next target.

    Courtesy Anne Minden
  • A block of cut maple shows the wood's unique grain pattern.

    Courtesy Anne Minden

Poachers began to target bigleaf maple trees in the Pacific Northwest in the early 2000s for the beautiful three-dimensional patterns found in some specimens’ grain. In Washington’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest, thieves often felled trees in the middle of the night and covered their stumps with moss to hide the damage (“Busting the Tree Ring,” 3/20/17). Then, in 2012, a U.S Forest Service officer learned about extracting tree DNA in order help track down black market lumber.

In July, for the first time, tree DNA was used in a federal criminal trial as evidence that illegally harvested timber had been sold to local mills, according to The Washington Post. “The DNA analysis was so precise that it found the probability of the match being coincidental was approximately 1 in 1 undecillion” prosecutors told jurors — “undecillion” being a very large number consisting of 1 followed by 36 zeroes. The defendant, Justin Andrew Wilke, was convicted as a result, and could face 10 years in prison.

Jessica Kutz is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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