Author Lyndsie Bourgon on BC’s connection to the larger problem of timber poaching

Illegal logging is a local problem, but a lack of understanding of its causes and effects will make it worse

By Jolene Rudisuela
June 10, 2022

Author Lyndsie Bourgon on BC’s connection to the larger problem of timber poaching

Illegal logging is a local problem, but a lack of understanding of its causes and effects will make it worse

Author photo by Stacey Krolow; book cover courtesy of Greystone Books.
Author photo by Stacey Krolow; book cover courtesy of Greystone Books.

Author Lyndsie Bourgon on BC’s connection to the larger problem of timber poaching

Illegal logging is a local problem, but a lack of understanding of its causes and effects will make it worse

By Jolene Rudisuela
June 10, 2022
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Author Lyndsie Bourgon on BC’s connection to the larger problem of timber poaching
Author photo by Stacey Krolow; book cover courtesy of Greystone Books.

When parks staff in Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park found a damaged 800-year-old red cedar in 2011, poachers had only started the process of cutting down the tree. Due to the precarity of the teetering trunk, parks crews had it cut down and left it there to decompose naturally. 

But a year later, the entire trunk had been cut up and hauled away. Still, no one has been charged for the theft of this tree.

While timber poaching and illegal logging happens around the world, Lyndsie Bourgon’s interest in the topic started right here on the Island a decade ago with the theft of the giant, ancient tree. 

Bourgon is a writer, researcher, oral historian, and 2018 National Geographic Explorer currently based in the BC interior. Her first book, Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods, comes out on June 21. 

Capital Daily reporter Jolene Rudisuela spoke with Bourgon about the prevalence of timber poaching, the need for better dialogue between loggers and environmentalists, and what happens to the wood that is stolen on the Island. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you become interested in the topic of timber poaching?

I heard about timber poaching in 2012. So the prologue for my book kind of discusses this a little bit, but there was a case of cedar poaching in the Carmanah Walbran in 2012, and I read about it in a news story. At the time, actually, I was still living in Toronto, and I grew up on the prairies of Alberta, and big trees, old-growth trees were not really around me in that way. So to hear this story, or to read about it rather, was just quite surprising to me. I didn't know that somebody could take down a single tree like that. I didn't know what they would do with it. I didn't know why someone would want to do it. 

I did a few interviews about it, and I also started reading a lot of history about poaching. And really getting into the history of poaching is really what kind of lit the fire for this book. So to me, it very quickly became not just a story about a crime, but a story about culture and environment, and kind of ownership over resources. 

What are some of the misconceptions about tree poaching, or even the poachers themselves, that you have seen? Is there anything in particular that surprised you in your research?

I think it is important that people know that this is really common in North America in the Pacific Northwest. When we talk about tree poaching and illegal logging, it's not just happening in Brazil, or in Peru, or in Cambodia. It happens here. And that happens for reasons of inequality, which I think is important to keep in mind.

I think I keep going back to when the story came out in 2012 about the cedar. By that point, Twitter discourse had kind of started, and there were a lot of retweets on CBC stories and stuff, saying things like, ‘heartless scum,’ or ‘Who could do this?’ At the time, I think I would have been prone to really agree with that. But the minute you start talking to people, you realize that, of course, nobody is heartless scum. And so, that to me is an important takeaway from this is that we have to have a little understanding of why some things might happen. Also: that what we define as a crime often wasn't always a crime. 

When I was doing my initial interviews about timber poaching, and reading news stories online, it was common to hear a refrain along the lines of "meth heads do this." And as I dug into the topic a bit more, that was definitely proven true to an extent, but I think it was a simplified explanation of who exactly takes trees. In many cases, timber poachers are former loggers (or family members of former loggers) who are experienced and comfortable with the equipment needed to take down a tree or cut out a burl. And in the same sense, they are familiar with where valuable trees are located and how to access them. There is some overlap, there, with people who might use meth—meth is common in many rural, ex-lumber communities, and I tried to dig into that in the book to show why that is and how unemployment can lead to drug use. Really, in the end, what most poachers had in common was living in poverty.

The subtitle of the book is “Crime and survival in North America's woods,” and I was kind of struck by the word “survival.” Is that referring to the trees or the poachers?

I think it applies to both. In North America, it's very important that our old growth survives, because we have almost none of it left, and they are carbon sinks. And they are home to some of our last remaining biodiversity. We know that second-growth forests in our lifetime will not be able to provide the benefits that an old-growth forest does. So it is important that they survive. 

It's also important that communities survive, that people survive. And unfortunately, people and forests have been put at odds. And so the nod to survival, there, is towards both and also the impossibility, in a way, of both.

Can you talk a little bit more about the idea that people and forests are perhaps at odds?

I think people and logging are at odds. Forestry is different than logging. And so forestry is about ecosystem management. And that does include logging—we know from history that trees have always been used and that logging is part of the lifecycle of an entire forest. But clear-cut logging is not. Clear-cut logging does not fit into the ecosystem. And it drains the ecosystem and damages it.

Unfortunately, I think what we can see through the history of the Pacific Northwest, in particular, it's that rapid expansion and the adoption of technologies that just made it really easy to clear cut log led to ecosystem destruction. Then that ecosystem destruction led to community destruction and to livelihood destruction. 

I think that there are moments in time, actually, where smaller logging companies were arguing for forest management and less logging, but more kind of targeted harvest because it would allow for consistent jobs, and it would allow for consistent work as opposed to a boom and bust. That mentality just didn't win out in the end. And what we see now are just watersheds and forests that are depleted, and then also communities that had a boom period and then busted.

Why do you think understanding the history of logging and environmental movements is beneficial in understanding what's happening now, and what continues to happen now?

There are a couple strands. So there's timber poaching, first of all, as a folk custom, which goes all the way back to 13th century England, and symbolism of Robin Hood and kind of an anti-monarchy, anti-landlord response to a material that is used for living life being taken away and sequestered and enclosed. And I think understanding that is actually really important when we then start hearing the perspectives of poachers themselves because you can place it into context of, like, this is a long tradition of storytelling and identity and relationships to law enforcement and kind of perceived power. And then there's the more recent history and how it affects motivations for timber poaching today. 

You can't go very long talking with someone who lives in a town that has gone through a transition away from natural resources extraction without hearing a little bit of frustration around the process of conservation politics. Also the unintended, perhaps, consequences of transitioning and instating a park and of removing some of this forest from cut blocks—which, of course, it should be, but that doesn't always mean that it's perfectly done. 

So, for me, I see understanding what happened in the 1960s in the late 1970s, and then into the ’80s and ’90s—the globalization and loss of logging jobs—as really important when we move forward. So that we can say, there should not be logging in Fairy Creek, how are we going to frame this? And how can we talk with our neighbors about it, so that we're not fighting with each other, and we're actually all going for the same thing, which is smooth transition and protection of the environment?

Throughout the book, especially at the beginning of the book, you write a lot about logging protests—how they started, and how loggers reacted. I saw a lot of parallels to Fairy Creek, which, of course, you noted at the end as well. What do you think are the big takeaways there?

I always hope for more openness in activism and more understanding toward the working class point of view that may have always been on display. I think that a lesson that comes from the Timber Wars in the ’80s and ’90s is that there's a lot of resentment towards environmentalism and conservation in a lot of these national park areas these days. You can draw a direct line between that resentment and anti-clear-cut logging protests of the Timber Wars. 

To prevent that cycle from just continuing, I think looking into the mistakes and dialogue and stuff that happened back then would be important. I have to admit that I was deep into writing this book when Fairy Creek was happening, and I didn't follow it as closely as I should have. But I think, unfortunately, there's a lot of bad blood around things like sit-ins and treetop living and stuff like that amongst the logger community because of what it reminds them of—you know, something that happened 30, 40 years ago. And that's a shame. 

James MacDonald / Capital Daily

You wrote about a day when you shadowed a natural resource officer (NRO) on the Island. What did you see that day?

So it was a spring day, it was snowy still further inland, but it had melted along the forest service roads that we were driving. There had been a story in CBC again earlier in the year saying that there was an increase in timber poaching on the Island. I reached out to the NROs and I was invited to spend the day with Luke Clark and Denise Blid, and we just kind of went on a drive.

I think that there were a few tree poaching spots that Luke had known about, and then on our way to those spots, we found more poaching sites. He is clearly quite skilled at this and saw the signs of a poaching site: some downed branches in the middle of the road, some dust kind of along the side where it looked like a log had been dragged, and some sawdust on the road there. So, he got out and he took all the measurements and plotted it.

That was how I got my first kind of inkling at how serendipitous it is to find a site if no one reports it, and also once you find it, how hard it is to then do anything about it other than say, Okay, well there's a site. Because there was nobody around, there were no signs of the poacher or the poaching. 

It was a very interesting day. I think we saw three sites in total, and we were not even an hour up the road.

What are the challenges in enforcement against timber poaching?

Well, it's really difficult. So even if you find a poaching site, to really have a strong case against a poacher, you'll need to find the wood that came from that site so that you can match the wood to the stump, and say, this wood came from this stump, which is very firmly within the bounds of a park or protected area. 

That is almost impossible, partly because it's pretty easy to move the product fast—so to take the wood and then sell it for firewood really quickly. And then you've separated the poached item from the person who did the poaching, right? 

Also, even just finding the sites themselves is generally through luck; it's through someone stumbling upon one, then saying, “This doesn't look right,” and then reporting it to a natural resource officer or a park ranger. So even just getting to that point is really difficult. 

Also, it's a crime that happens at night, usually, and so you need someone in the right place at the right time to go out at night, which is quite dangerous. You'd be approaching people with heavy machinery and trying to catch them in the act of something illegal. 

You wrote about BC natural resource officers taking self-defense courses, is that right?

Yeah. And they carry batons and they wear bulletproof vests and stuff now. That was actually something really surprising to me—that even in the States, being a park ranger is considered just as dangerous as being an FBI agent, and I never would have expected that. But it's true. You're investigating crimes that are happening in very remote, very quiet regions. 

Often natural resource officers and park rangers are really understaffed departments or ministries. And it can be dangerous if you're alone. For instance, maybe you're working the night shift and you hear that someone's poaching but you're the only one on. I wouldn't blame anyone for thinking twice about investigating that. 

Another thing I found really interesting in the book was just the places that poached wood can turn up. It's been found in so many things from IKEA furniture to floor boards. Where does wood poached in BC often end up?

In terms of the wood that gets poached here, it often depends on what payoff the poacher might be looking for. But it could be bucked up into just firewood, maybe sold on the side of the road or sold through Facebook marketplace is really common. Artisan tables—I think Luke Clark was the one who said to me, when you go down to Vancouver and you see all these beautiful live edge bars at a bar or a cafe, you know, you kind of start to wonder where that came from.

The redwood burls from the States were often being sold to burl shops where they might be turned into art, like really beautiful coffee tables and things like that. Earlier in the ’80s or the ’90s it was being shipped abroad and turned into veneers for the inside of Rolls Royce cars. So it makes its way for sure. 

And guitars. So that's a big one from Washington State and also British Columbia as well is that maple wood is often used in musical instrument manufacturing, particularly guitars. Because it has just a beautiful kind of grain and pattern to it. And it's also really nice to work with. And so there's a lot of poached wood that goes into musical instrument manufacturing.

What are the odds that the average person might have bought something made with poached wood?

I mean there aren't any statistics on that, but I think there's a very good chance that we all have something that has been unethically harvested. Whether or not it's poached from a park, I don't know, but just clear-cut wood from a lot of places around the world is just so in demand.

There's been a lot more talk recently about fast fashion, and what fast fashion does to the environment. I think that fast furniture is very similar. Cheap, easily accessible furniture is wonderful because we all deserve to live in a place that has what we need. But there's a cost to it. There's a cost to that kind of great demand. And I think it's an environmental one.

Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods will be released June 21. It's now available for preorder.

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