The strange underground economy of tree poaching

by | Jun 28, 2022 | Top Stories

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Coastal Redwood Trees

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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.”

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Redwood Burls

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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 Tro …

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