When Mark Andre took the stand in a Humboldt County courtroom on a fall afternoon in 2018, he testified to the financial worth of portions of an old-growth redwood.
Andre is a registered professional forester with a forestry firm in Arcata, California. In the spring leading up to his appearance on the stand, rangers from Redwood National and State Parks in northern California were deep into a months-long investigation of burl poaching. Burls — the bark-covered growths that can protrude from a tree’s trunk — hold within them unsprouted bud tissue, and produce a wood that’s valued for its unique grain and smooth workability. Because of their beauty and relative rarity, old-growth burls command good rates from burl shop owners and distributors and are eventually turned into tables and bowls, or carved into trinkets and statues.
While burls can be harvested and sold legally on private land, burl poaching is an ongoing concern in northern California’s parks. Burl poaching threatens the stability of some of the only old-growth coastal redwoods that remain standing: Only 4 percent of the coastal redwoods that once carpeted this region remain, and 45 percent of those are conserved in park boundaries. When someone poaches a burl from one of these ancient trees, it leaves the tree with structural damage that can kill it, and makes it more susceptible to disease and rot.
Between 2013 and 2016, at least 90 burls had been poached from old-growth forests within the boundaries of the Redwood National and State Parks, according to one 2018 study. The burls are part of a lucrative timber market that drives tree poaching in the Pacific Northwest and across the United States. At last estimate, the Forest Service reported that 1 in 10 trees logged on their land is poached. The financial impact can be hard to pin down, but some sources estimate poaching amounts to up to $100 million per year, contributing to a broader $1 billion annual valuation of all timber poaching in the United States.
All sorts of trees are poached across North America — Douglas fir, black walnut, cedar, and even entire redwoods — and some rare woods, like redwood burl and figured maple, command far more money than the other trees that grow alongside them.
When poaching cases are brought to trial, prosecutors are tasked with arguing for a punishment that takes a tree’s worth into account. Andre was no stranger to courtrooms – he is among a group of experts trained to measure and calculate the volume, height, and quality of a tree, and the subsequent lumber it produces. From there, a dollar figure can be placed on a haul of poached timber, a numerical value typically rooted in market worth.
But this reliance on a purely market-based fine is gradually falling from favor, and rangers, natural resource managers, and prosecutors have started arguing more forcefully for valuation that takes into consideration the forest as a complex ecosystem, within which old growth is just a single, yet crucial, element. It’s a shift from the easily quantifiable toward a multi-faceted consideration of worth. This new tactic is partly due to the surprisingly low fines typically handed down to convicted poachers, usually based on that week’s timber market data.
The risk is often worth taking for poachers, who can sell wood for a quick infusion of cash and a small fine if caught.
In British Columbia, natural resource officers who patrol provincial forest lands have started to argue for steeper penalties that take ecological value, wildlife corridors, recreational use, and aesthetic beauty into consideration. It’s in those issues that the gravity of poaching is most felt, one officer told me, not simply the loss of a marketable resource.
Across the border, in Washington, similar arguments have been made in large timber poaching cases. In a 2012 case of tree theft, a man pled guilty to poaching bigleaf maple, Western red cedar trees, and Douglas fir, at least one of which was 300 years old, from Olympic National Forest. The market value of the wood was estimated to be between $59,510 and $118,660. But when it came time for sentencing and restitution, federal attorneys argued that the ecological value of timber should also contribute to the overall fine.
The prosecution used something called an “ecological valuation” — a method factors in considerations like the tree’s value as habitat for endangered birds, as well as a single old-growth’s influence on forest health. “Because the Forest Service is charged with stewarding the forests for the public benefit (and not simply with marketing timber), consideration of ecological factors is necessary,” the restitution memo said. Notably, it also stated: “Courts have recognized that a restitution order should reflect the value of stolen property from the victim’s perspective. Market value does not adequately reflect this value.”
In order to present the victim’s perspective in this case, scientists visited the site of the crime to inspect the forest’s biodiversity: the birds, fungi, and animals that relied on the trees; the density of standing trees; the presence of fallen and decomposing logs. The trees had been growing for a century along a forest fire corridor. “What was really lost,” the ecological assessment report read, “was the potential for these Douglas-fir and redcedars to grow into suitable habitat” in the future. Due to its elevation, potential for more structural diversity, and proximity to Hood Canal, the site’s value would only increase over time as the stand aged.
Using the ecological valuation process, cultural values can also be included. In the Washington case, the traditional use of Western redcedars by Indigenous peoples would be considered as well.
The final valuation was further determined using the International Society of Arboriculture’s “trunk formula method,” which provided a replacement value for each tree, calculated using condition, location, and other variables including the potential habitat structures for the region’s endangered marbled murrelet and threatened northern spotted owl. The method calculates the cost of replacing an ancient poached tree with one closest in size, assessing the condition of the remaining site, and factoring in the tree’s contribution to the forest and culture surrounding it.
In its request for restitution, the legal team used a precedent set through the arson of a 100-year-old church. The church was not a “fungible commodity” that could be brought back — in that sense, neither was the old-growth. In the end, the prosecution’s appraised value of the trees poached in the Washington case increased from the initial low-end estimate of $59,510 to $242,375.
But this method has not been applied consistently across jurisdictions. When it came to the redwood burl poaching in Humboldt, Andre’s valuation relied on a market-based analysis alone. He visited an evidence storage locker at the Redwoods National and State Parks’ south operations center, where he viewed 32 pieces of the redwood that had been carved from the base of a tree. The poached wood was seized from a nearby property, alleged to have been stolen from a landing right off the highway.
In the locker, Andre took notes and snapped photographs. Alongside a ranger, he later visited the poaching site itself, travelling into the forest brush and taking “measurements of the void,” he said, using a tape measure and Biltmore stick, a tool used to measure a tree trunk’s diameter and height.
In his office, Andre converted the measurements of the seized wood blocks into “board feet” — an industry measurement used to quantify the volume of logs and lumber. At the time, redwood was selling for about $2,500 per thousand board feet. Based on that, he assessed the wood’s total value at only $530.
That doesn’t sound like a lot, but there’s more than one way to sell a tree. So Andre also calculated the wood’s value by weight, using the board-feet measurements and species density. The slabs he saw in the storage locker had an estimated combined weight of 1,330 pounds: Using an industry standard of $0.25 per pound, that made the wood worth $332.50.
But there was one more option: after talking to industry experts, he estimated that each of the 32 pieces could be sold for an average price of about $50 each. That would peg the wood’s worth at $1,600.
Three different possible values for the poached redwood, which would directly inform a surprisingly low fine considering the crime: It was vandalism of federal property, technically, but also theft from some of the most ancient and imposing forests on North American soil. It was also the theft of future biodiversity: the stump from which the burl had been removed was growing new redwood sprouts.
When it came time to determine an appropriate restitution for the poacher, the judge handed down two years probation, community service hours, and a $1,200 fine — a sort of compromise between the three sums that Andre had presented to the court. For poaching the soft tissue of a redwood burl, the poacher’s punishment was closer to that of someone misreporting their taxable income.
In the redwoods — and in forests across the country — an opportunity is often missed in poaching cases to account for the intangible. As prosecutors and rangers continue to argue for expanding our definitions of “worth,” poaching from American forests still remains worth the risk.
Lyndsie Bourgon is a writer, oral historian, and 2018 National Geographic Explorer based in British Columbia. She writes about the environment and its entanglement with history, culture, and identity. Her features have been published in The Atlantic, Smithsonian, The Guardian, The Oxford American, Aeon, The Walrus, and Hazlitt, among other outlets.