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The strange underground economy of tree poaching

Coastal Redwood Trees
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
Coastal Redwood Trees

NOTE: This is Part Two of a two-part Planet Money newsletter series on the struggles of a former logging town named Orick, California. Part One, "The tale of a distressed American town on the doorstep of a natural paradise," can be found here.

On the morning of March 27, 2018, rangers from Redwood National and State Parks put on their bulletproof vests and jumped into their cars. Their destination wasn't far: a house in the small town of Orick, California, the same town as the park headquarters where the rangers are based. Pulling up to the house, they grabbed their AR-15s. Guns in hand, they pounded on the door, shouting they had a search warrant.

One of the residents opened the door, and the rangers began searching the premises. Two of them rounded the property and went into the backyard, where there was a shed. Holding their semi-automatic rifles up, ready to shoot, they entered the shed and found their suspect, Derek Hughes. "If you shoot me, you're going to have all hell to pay," Hughes reportedly said.

The park rangers handcuffed Hughes. Searching the premises, they found brass knuckles, a handgun, a camera they suspected was stolen from the park, a plastic bag with traces of methamphetamine, and four meth pipes. But the rangers weren't there for any of that. They continued searching for what they were really looking for. And, scattered along a fence, under a tarp, and in a woodworking shop, they found it: chunks of illegally poached redwood.

When most people think of park rangers, they probably think friendly nature guides in fun hats. But at Redwood National and State Parks, the park rangers' mission of protecting old-growth redwood trees has led them to become a kind of anti-poaching police squad. Some of their investigations have been so action-packed they could be episodes of a TV show. Think CSI: Redwood Forest.

A new book by writer and National Geographic Explorer Lyndsie Bourgon dives deep into this fascinating criminal world of tree theft and efforts to combat it. It's called Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America's Woods, and much of it examines poaching conflicts in Orick, the southern gateway to Redwood National and State Parks.

Burl Poaching

In many ways, the struggling former logging town of Orick, California, resembles other rural towns and inner cities hit by the atomic bomb of deindustrialization. Blight mars man-made structures. Poverty and unemployment rates are high. And people have turned to drugs, alcohol, and crime to cope.

But the crime around Orick that Bourgon examines in her book has a distinctive local flavor. Over the last decade, Orick residents have been caught illegally harvesting a part of redwood trees known as "burls."

Bourgon describes burls as "big, gnarly bumps" on trees that are covered in bark. "And they form after the tree has experienced a bit of distress," Bourgon says. "Sometimes that means a fungal infection or a lightning strike or maybe they've survived a fire. And the burl is the tree kind of directing all of its resources into healing that area — and in doing so it creates a burl that holds a lot of genetic DNA. And often new trees will sprout from a burl because it contains a lot of genetic material."

Redwood Burls
/ Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Redwood Burls

Burls may be important to the health of trees, but they're also financially valuable, sometimes fetching thousands of dollars for a slab. "They produce this really lovely piece of grained wood that's very easy to carve because it's smooth," Bourgon says. "You don't get a lot of blemishes or knots in it. People turn them into tables, sculptures, statues. They have been used in luxury goods made abroad, like in the consoles of cars."

They say that money doesn't grow on trees, but tell that to the region's burl poachers. "It's quick money," says Stephen Troy, the chief ranger of Redwood National and State Parks. Through their investigations, Troy says, they've discovered that poachers can quickly offload their burl heists to local buyers. "We have found illegal burlwood in storefronts in Orick and as far as Eureka, to the south, as well as Crescent City, to the north," Troy says.

The burl industry around Orick remains lucrative. Driving up Highway 101 — which in these parts is also known as Redwood Highway — you'll see artisanal shops that sell sculptures, furniture, and trinkets made out of burlwood. It's a cultural pastime and a way of making a living. The products show incredible craftsmanship and artistry. The problem, however, is some of this wood — and it's pretty unclear how much — may be illegally harvested from old-growth redwood trees on national and state park land.

In an effort to get burlwood, poachers sneak into the woods in the dead of the night with chainsaws. Typically, Troy says, they'll do it during stormy weather, when it's less likely for people to catch them in the act. They saw off large chunks of trees, opening them up to infection and potentially threatening their ability to stand. "The burl is also a protectionary reproductive measure, so if you lose the burl, you're not only losing that tree, but you might also be losing the ability of that tree to reproduce," Bourgon says.

Articles about poaching at Redwood National and State Parks began proliferating around 15 years ago. Back then, however, the problem was theft of dead redwood logs, not live trees. "Although thieves haven't started chopping down live trees, authorities worry that will become an issue as the number of easily poached logs diminishes," the San Francisco Chronicle reported in 2006.

Poaching downed trees is still a serious problem for the ecological health of the forest, says Erin Gates, the Deputy Superintendent of Redwood National and State Parks. However, the problem has gotten even worse over the last decade. Since at least 2012, poachers have expanded their poaching to live trees in the parks, hacking off burls and even felling whole old-growth redwoods in their quest for burlwood. Park officials have uncovered dozens of poaching sites. And that, Ranger Troy suspects, is "just the tip of the iceberg."

Gates sees illegal burl poaching as the latest chapter in a centuries-long story: the obliteration of the coastal redwood forest, which once covered two million acres along the West Coast. "For the most part, almost all of the old-growth redwoods on the planet have been cut down," Gates says. "There are only 4 percent of them left." Redwood National and State Parks protects about 40 percent of these remaining trees, and with supply dwindling on private land, the park has increasingly become a target. These trees can be upwards of 2,000 years old, so it's not like they can be easily replaced.

To combat this scourge of forest crime, the park has invested in cameras, motion detectors, and various other technologies to catch poachers in the act. In the case of poacher Derek Hughes, this technology helped to catch the perpetrator. After a park ranger stumbled across a secretive poaching site in the park, he suspected the poacher would come back to the same area to harvest more burls. So he hid motion-activated cameras in the forest. A month later, the ranger analyzed the footage and identified a suspect who they believed was Derek Hughes (it's a small town). The footage helped rangers get a search warrant for his residence, where they eventually found evidence of burl theft.

Hughes ultimately pleaded guilty to felony vandalism. The court sentenced him to two years of probation and required him to pay a $1,200 fine, as well as complete 400 hours of community service. Hughes is also banned from Redwood National and State Parks.

Rumble In The Woods

As we highlighted in the first part of this series, Orick residents have long had beef with the national park, seeing its creation, expansion, and subsequent management as the source of their immiseration. While in the past this tension was about the park's prevention of logging, which was once the region's livelihood, these days tensions are about the policies and day-to-day conduct of park officials.

In the early 2010s, Redwood National and State Parks declared burl poaching a "crisis," and they began ramping up law enforcement efforts. A huge part of their mission, after all, is to protect this one-of-a-kind ancient redwood forest. However, as Bourgon documents, it also has exacerbated tensions between the parks and Orick.

Talking to some locals, the national park can sometimes sound like a foreign occupying force. Redwood National Park's rangers, Bourgon says, pull people over if they suspect they are carrying illegally harvested wood, or are breaking the law in some other way. The park has also partnered with the Save The Redwoods League, an environmental group that has spent more than a century protecting redwoods, to offer a $5,000 reward to anyone who snitches on poachers.

"You can imagine — in an area that has been really affected by the work of the Save The Redwoods League and the park — how that might be perceived," Bourgon says.

For Bourgon, tree poaching is the product of a desperation found in places without many options. Since the logging industry collapsed, Orick has been trapped in a downward spiral. When the park was opened and then expanded, officials told Orick that it would thrive as more and more tourists flocked to the area. How could it not? It's right next to the parks. However, despite its prime real estate and the flow of tourist traffic through the area, Orick has, for the most part, failed to capitalize on its desirable geography.

"Orick finds itself ensnared in a vicious circle: its reputation for drugs and unsightly property deters anyone who might want to invest in making it a permanent home or a place where tourists might want to stay," Bourgon writes. Local officials, like Gregg Foster, the executive director of the Redwood Region Economic Development Commission, sees a big part of the problem as a lack of public investment in infrastructure and upkeep and a morass of confusing regulations that discourages private investment.

Bourgon argues that Redwood National and State Parks should hire more locals, which might do double-duty of easing community tensions and providing greater opportunities in the area. Gates says park jobs are "open to everyone." She added, "We encourage our local surrounding community members to apply for these positions, but we do not have any control over whether they do or do not apply."

In recent years, economists have been paying much more attention to the intractable problems created by deindustrialization. It turns out that after places lose the main source of their livelihoods, residents don't just move to other places for better opportunities, as classic economic theory suggested they would. Instead, many stay and suffer, even as their hometowns collapse. In desperation, some turn to criminal activity, like dealing drugs or stealing precious redwood burls. We've seen stories like this play out over and over again, in former coal-mining towns, in inner cities, and in places that lost manufacturing after Chinese-made goods flooded America.

Recognizing that people show a tendency to stay in place, economists and policymakers have been turning to "place-based policies," or policies aimed at helping distressed places get out of their economic rut. If there were ever a place that smart policies could help turn around, Orick — which sits at the doorstep of incredible parks with the tallest trees in the world — has got to be a prime candidate. After all, if people there had good jobs and an incentive not to sneak into the parks at night, chainsaws in hand, it wouldn't just be the community that would benefit: the redwoods would be more likely to flourish as well.

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Since 2018, Greg Rosalsky has been a writer and reporter at NPR's Planet Money.
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