1518 Brazen timber heists

Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods
by Lyndsie Bourgon

Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2022
$34.95 / 9781771647199

Reviewed by Brett Josef Grubisic


For many readers, Tree Thieves will surprise, inform, disturb, alarm, and enlighten. This impressive, absorbing, and often riveting debut work of non-fiction introduces a serious issue, as well as cause for real concern. Its portraits of economically downtrodden rural places and desperate citizens in northern California and coastal British Columbia put faces and names to an illicit enterprise the majority of people will never have thought of because this underground commerce operates stealthily and undetected; and it attracts little-to-nothing in the way of headlines, especially compared to the trigger-point notoriety of clear-cutting. Globally, trees number in the trillions; as a result, this black-market business can operate in virtual invisibility. And yet, once seen (thanks to the intrepid work of Clearwater, BC’s Lyndsie Bourgon, whose recent projects investigated land use along the Trans Mountain pipeline corridor and the terminal days of British-Antarctic whaling) the problem — its enormity, causes, and complexity, not to mention the sheer difficulty in effectively tackling it — cannot be un-seen.

Lyndsie Bourgon of Clearwater. Photo by Stacey Krolow, Kamloops

Wood products are everywhere. Guided by Bourgon’s investigations, the story of any given wood’s origins becomes suddenly crucial.

Bourgon’s subject? Unauthorized timber harvest. “Timber poaching happens everywhere,” she writes, “on vastly different scales, throughout the seasons — one tree taken here, another taken there.” It “runs the gamut from the seemingly minute — cutting down a small Christmas tree in a park near your home, for example — to the large-scale devastation of entire groves.” The numbers, whether the estimated annual losses of $20 million to BC’s publicly managed forests and $350 million to private company holdings in North America, or the $1 trillion poaching generates (along with illegal fishing and animal trading, a trio Bourgon calls the “illegal wildlife-trade industry”), are colossal and staggering. Ecologically, of course, “even on a small scale” this theft has had and will continue to have “far-reaching impact,” all of which contributes to a “declining in environmental health and weakening of our forests, leaving marks on the earth that will persist for hundreds of years.”

Environmental Protection Agency, Poached Timber

For the most part, Bourgon focusses on specific North American locales. It’s not until “It Was a Vision Quest,” her eighteenth chapter, that she addresses the global scope. Tracking agencies estimate that illegal logging generates “somewhere between $51 billion and $157 billion annually” and accounts for 30 percent of the world’s wood trade (with some 90 percent of Cambodian wood taken illegally). The wood products originate in Brazil, Peru, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Madagascar and get sold everywhere, from IKEA and Home Depot; slow-growing rosewood, the most trafficked of all (despite worldwide protection), appears in Canada as carvings, beads, furniture, flooring, and musical instruments. In some cases, such as Somalia, Australia, and Myanmar, she notes, illegally harvested wood is “a cog in the machine of funding large-scale crime networks.” Troublingly, “an almost insurmountable confluence of factors” conspire to make the destructive practice difficult to stop. One such factor is apathy: Bourgon contrasts wood with elephants and cites a UN officer, who states, “If you deal timber, no one really cares.” (Though Bourgon outlines the efforts of the US Fish & Wildlife Service Forensic Laboratory to build a genetic database of trees, the obstacles — including, but limited to limited funding and officers, the vast scale of the trade, unflagging consumer demand for cheap wood, and easy access to deep stands of forest — give the lab the look of a child’s finger in a dyke.)

Douglas fir trees cut and removed from a forest reserve in North Cowichan on Vancouver Island, 2021. Larry Pynn photo courtesy CBC

As engaging as the statistical material is and as fascinating as the funding of large-scale crime networks via illicit harvesting may be, Bourgon’s focus is neither seasonal Christmas tree theft nor the large-scale devastation of entire groves.

“I have spent years trying to understand why someone might steal” one of the trees only hours from her backyard in BC’s interior, Bourgon writes. “I wonder how someone who lives surrounded by the crushing beauty of a redwood forest can simultaneously love it and kill it.” Timber poaching, “a form of deforestation rarely discussed” and “a large physical crash of a crime,” is rooted in a challenge that “stretches across North America: the disintegration of community in the face of economic and cultural change.” Bourgon sees the act of timber poaching as “not simply a dramatic environmental crime” but a complex and contradictory “act to reclaim one’s place in a rapidly changing world, a deed of necessity.”

The Charter of the Forest (1225). Courtesy British Library

Before arriving in the 2020s, Bourgon sketches an intriguing history, starting in 13th-century England, where the Charter of the Forest established a precedent for forest ownership and conceptualization. She touches on New World historical developments related to wood utilization (5 billion cords of wood consumed in a matter of decades; between 1850 and 1990, “96 percent of redwoods disappeared due to logging”), the conservation movement (acts of “resistance facilitated by the wealthy”), post-1945 outlooks, where wood was envisioned as a means to “help rebuild better lives at home” (and, accordingly, was clearcut in record amounts).

She outlines the Timber Wars of the 1980s and 1990s and pulls into Orick, California, a “failed utopia” and former logging town and community wounded by economic change — the “deindustrialization of the Pacific Northwest” — and, later, methamphetamine and OxyContin. Bourgon narrows the chronicle to a handful of men and women involved in the trade of redwood burls, in particular men with chainsaws who visit remote locales to carve burls out of trees in order to supplement their incomes. The picture of the “social trouble” of the “entwined lives of Orickites who steal wood” is sobering and thoughtful; similarly fascinating is the account of the efforts of policing authorities to stamp of this harmful trade (which is supported by tourists and collectors bewitched by the unique characteristic of polished burls).

Western red cedar stumps of trees stolen from North Cowichan forest reserve, 2021. Photo by Larry Pynn, courtesy CBC

California’s Humboldt Country is Bourgon’s primary locus, but the author’s visits to central Vancouver Island — where entire trees of fir, maple, and cedar are cut and hauled away in no time — indicate similar economic upheavals and social fallout and well as sadly commensurate countermeasures (from 2013-18, Bourgon notes, 2,300 forest crimes were reported in BC; of those cases, “a mere 140 made it to the courts”).

Bourgon cites authorities who call for steeper fines and increased policing personnel. The author’s not so sure. A new approach to conservation is a tall order, she realizes, as is a revised relationship to trees and to the land itself. It’s all “a question of belonging,” she muses. It’s a lovely, hopeful premise. Your response to the sentiment will depend on your view of humanity’s capability — or willingness — to make the effort.


Brett Josef Grubisic

My Two-Faced Luck, the fifth novel by Salt Spring Islander Brett Josef Grubisic, published in 2021 with Now or Never Publishing, is reviewed here by Geoffrey Morrison. A previous book, Oldness; or, the Last-Ditch Efforts of Marcus O (2018), was reviewed by Dustin ColeEditor’s note: Brett Josef Grubisic has recently reviewed books by Gurjinder BasranDon LePan, Paul Headrick, Christopher EvansBrad FraserRobert James O’Brien, and Kevin Holowack.


The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

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