Given what’s going on in that courtroom in Kenosha—today’s festivities began with the judge asking for a round of applause for America’s veterans, and the only veteran in the courtroom was the next witness for the defense—I think we could use a comforting story from America’s criminal-justice system. So let us now move on to this week’s episode of CSI: Arboretum.
From the Washington Post:
A case in Washington State represents the first use of DNA evidence from trees during a prosecution in a federal criminal trial. Justin Andrew Wilke, 39, and a crew of associates were found to have conducted an illegal logging operation in the Elk Lake area of the Olympic National Forest, between April and August 2018. The group removed highly prized maple trees — used to produce musical instruments such as violins and guitars — and forged permits to sell the wood, according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office Western District of Washington. Wilke was sentenced on Monday.
At the trial, a research geneticist for the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Forest Service testified that the wood Wilke sold was a genetic match to the remains of three poached maple trees that investigators had discovered in the Elk Lake area. The DNA analysis was so precise that it found the probability of the match being coincidental was approximately 1 in 1 undecillion (1 followed by 36 zeros), the statement added.
(And we learn a new word!)
Apparently, tree-poaching is a BFD, as our president once put it. It’s a major crime in that part of the continent, including in British Columbia, where rising lumber costs are blamed for an epidemic of the crime. In 2019, at the height of the opioid epidemic, The Atlantic published a piece by writer Lyndsey Bourgeon describing how people needing money to feed their addictions had taken to poaching trees to make easy money selling firewood.
While it’s possible to make upwards of $800 selling 1,000 board feet of Douglas fir to mills or manufacturers, poached wood most often makes it into the system as firewood, sold for as little as a couple of hundred dollars per truck-bed-ful. Many poachers use tools such as Facebook Marketplace and Kijiji to advertise loads of split fir firewood, for instance—this wood can be off-loaded quickly, so the risk of being caught is low. When Clarke and Blid took me on their fieldwork, it was the end of winter—desperate times if you’re one of the many families in the area that rely on a woodstove for heat and you’ve underestimated your needs. Timber poaching in much of British Columbia is driven by incontrovertible human needs—the need for shelter, food, and, in some cases, the next hit of the painkiller that has taken hold of one’s brain.
In the case of the folks busted through tree DNA, these weren’t subsistence poachers. They were allegedly just greedy (and very clumsy) ones.
In 2018 Wilke and two others decided one night to cut a bigleaf maple, which contained a wasp’s nest near the tree’s base. To remove the nest, they sprayed insecticide and likely gasoline before lighting it on fire. The group failed to extinguish the fire, which developed into a wildfire and became known as the Maple Fire. It consumed more than 3,300 acres between August and November 2018 and cost approximately $4.2 million to contain, the court said.
There is something charming about how trees helped bust their own alleged killers from beyond the ashes. It gives me hope.
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