Photo: Stacey Krolow
In “Tree Thieves,” Lyndsie Bourgon investigates the billion-dollar timber-poaching industry
In a Q&A, the author reveals how theft of old-growth trees is linked to the conservation movement and what motivates the poachers. / BY Susan Grimbly / June 17th, 2022
While we sit in the comfort of our homes and watch, occasionally, the angry logging protests along the West Coast of North America (like the War in the Woods at Clayoquot Sound in 1993), those pushed out of the lumber industry often have nowhere to go. Since trees are one thing they know, a number have turned to tree poaching. Poverty is a powerful motivator.
In Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods, Lyndsie Bourgon, a B.C. writer, oral historian and 2018 National Geographic Explorer, follows their trail through the forests of Vancouver Island and the Pacific Northwest. Her guides are park rangers to the south, and natural resources officers in the north. Her compass points are the various characters she meets, whose personal stories about tree theft are surprisingly compelling. Opioids play a role.
Douglas firs and redwoods, at 2,000-odd years old, are not only startling beautiful, but as we have been told repeatedly, carbon sinks. We don’t want coastal rainforests chopped down, or chipped away at, to be turned into the soundboard of a guitar, shakes and shingles, furniture or firewood.
In this condensed and edited interview with Bourgon on her thoughtful book, she explains the whys and wherefores of the insidious billion-dollar black market.
Susan Grimbly: Your book on black market timber poaching in national parks on the West Coast is a remarkable feat of uncovering crime. What was your entry point? What led you to this second War in the Woods, particularly?
Lyndsie Bourgon: I first learned about tree poaching through a case of cedar poaching on Vancouver Island, in 2012. I was really surprised that someone would – and even could – poach a tree. And I started making some initial calls to BC Parks representatives, trying to learn what happened. At the same time, I started researching timber theft in the region. And that’s when I fell down the rabbit hole. I soon came to learn that timber poaching was linked in all sorts of ways to the history of conservation, even our recent history. That led me to the other War in the Woods of the early 1990s [the blockade in Clayoquot Sound to prevent logging of ancient trees]. The two became interlinked, to me.
SG: How did you find your main “poachers”: Danny Garcia, the Guffies, Derek Hughes?
LB: Mostly through reading and research, and then spending time in Humboldt [Calif.] and reaching out to speak to them. Garcia’s and Hughes’ cases had both been covered in local newspapers, so I knew their names before I arrived. … I spent some time in Eureka and Orick [Calif.], just chatting to people and getting a sense of the town and region. Many people were very generous in helping me do interviews and contact others. It’s a really open and generous part of the world.
SG: You describe yourself as an oral historian: What was your approach in interviewing the poachers? How did you win their trust?
LB: I’ve learned a lot through studying oral history, including the principles of informed interviewing and subject-led interviewing. This means that I wanted to give everyone involved a chance to talk from their own memory and experience, to let them tell their own stories rather than respond to very pointed questions. In terms of earning trust, I don’t think that’s something that’s ever a given. But I will say that I reached out with an open-mind and desire to be even-handed in my writing.
SG: You talk about the protrusions from redwood trees, the monster-sized burls, which are prized for everything from dashboards to guitars. Any idea how many musical instruments might exist from poached redwood?
LB: Sorry, I’m afraid I don’t know this data! That said, it’s a fairly boutique and artisanal industry, so it’s likely not a huge amount like you might see in mass production of some guitars or furniture, for instance. But those items that are produced from burl are highly prized, and their beauty is really in contrast to how so many of them are sourced.
SG: How does losing burls to poachers affect the future of redwoods?
LB: Burls are an important part of redwood genetic safeguarding—even the wood that’s used to produce one guitar, or one table, has a direct impact on forest ecology. Burls help new redwoods sprout and grow – they hold the old growth of the future. And old-growth forests are an important carbon sink, absorbing and storing significant amounts of carbon. Since there are so few redwoods left, to lose a burl today means a break in ancestry and loss of those benefits in the future.
SG: I know the park rangers were helpful to you, but how do you feel about their small fines or bribery to try to nab poachers? What would be better — more money? Better technology?
LB: I certainly wouldn’t criticize the success that park rangers have found through cultivating informants – they are working on the ground every day, tasked to protect a huge expanse of forest, and they are trying to stop poaching. But I think the best chance we have for preventing more poaching is through social services that get at the root of the issue. And that can happen at all levels, whether it’s direct assistance to poachers (who might need links to steady work, healthcare or mental health supports) or even to town councils in areas that poaching occurs around. The now-deceased poaching expert Rory Young felt that prevention couldn’t happen through policing or technology, but rather through “dealing with socio-economic factors that encourage poaching”– I agree.
SG: You mention DisconTent City, a large group of unhoused folks in Nanaimo… what is the connection to timber theft?
LB: I don’t think every person living in DisconTent City was poaching, but I do think that it is emblematic of a much larger problem that contributes to poaching and other crimes.
When I was doing research and reporting on poaching on Vancouver Island, I asked a natural resources officer who he suspected was taking trees. And we ended up having a long chat about Nanaimo’s transitioning economy, and the unhoused crisis on Vancouver Island as a whole. DisconTent City was a tent encampment that sprung up in response to that crisis, and it had sprawled and become a flashpoint in the city the summer previous. Eventually, the encampment was closed and the people living there provided with temporary housing.
One of the poachers that the officer had spoken to in the past ended up living in that housing – he had been open about needing the quick money that poaching provided, and that often that wood was sold as firewood.
SG: You are careful not to condemn tree thieves (even while mourning old-growth trees). How are you able to maintain this ethical point of view?
LB: It was important to me that I avoid placing a judgmental lens on the people I spoke to. And partly that’s because, at first, I thought that old-growth poaching was unforgiveable. But my research and interviewing led me to change my mind, and I wanted to keep that in focus. I think enough judgment against poachers happens through other media accounts, online comments, and also just in their everyday lives. My goal with the book was to draw a line through history, showing how a crime we hear about today is rooted in deep questions about ownership, class, identity, and family.
SG: Where do you stand on tree huggers and preservation purists?
LB: I think we need activism. Activism is how we progress. Environmentalism is why we can stand in awe underneath 2,000-year-old redwood trees and hear our own heartbeat. But I think there’s more room for inclusivity of differing perspectives and backgrounds in that activism, and that includes working-class and rural experiences.
SG: What would you like readers to take away from this passionate history?
LB: Even though this book revolves around the logging industry and timber crime, some of the underlying messages can be applied to other forms of environmental activism. Many communities have experienced a “boom-and-bust” economy, similar to the timber industry. I hope that, as we (hopefully) talk about transitioning our economy away from resource extraction, we can keep in mind how painful it can be for many when they are not meaningfully included in that transition. And how that pain can be passed along through generations and lead to resentment. That means actually listening, and coming to the table with respect and a desire to understand and, perhaps, feel a bit uncomfortable.