Jordan: If a tree illegally falls in a coastal forest, in the dead of night and is hauled away, chopped up and sold on the black market, but the culprit did it out of desperation. Is it still a crime? Vancouver Island is seeing a massive jump in timber poaching, so much so that one man who watches part of its forests says he simply cannot keep up. Why is a crime that seems logistically difficult, to say the least, on the rise? What is driving the desperation that makes stealing trees seem like the logical option. Should governments be devoting more resources to protecting these resources? And even if they did, how do you pleas a gigantic forest when the level of theft is a single tree at a time?
Jordan: I’m Jordan, Keith Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Lindsay Borgen dug into this little known, but fascinating issue in the Atlantic. Hi Lindsay.
Jordan: Can you start, because this story contains all sorts of things that I didn’t know were happening, but can you start by explaining to me what a natural resource officer does on Vancouver Island?
Lindsay: Sure, so a natural resource officer is different than what they might call a conservation officer, which is what we might think of as a park warden. But a natural resource officer is essentially the law enforcement in the woods. So they are in charge of investigating poaching cases of all different kinds, whether that’s deer poaching or illegal fishing or, in this case, timber poaching, and they also kind of approach people that are using our natural resources against the law.
Jordan: You kind of told your story through the eyes of one of them so why don’t you tell me about him and what he’s seeing these days?
Lindsay: Sure. So Luke Clark, he’s a natural resource officer in Nanaimo BC, and he is kind of quite vocal these days about the amount of timber poaching that’s happening on the land surrounding Nanaimo and then towards some of the lake, in the middle of the island there, and he has basically been talking about how there’s been a massive increase in the number of trees that are being illegally taken essentially one at a time, from some of this land that is either preserved parkland or kind of managed by the provincial government in a sustainable way.
Jordan: So tell me about these trees and how someone would actually go about poaching a tree? Because I imagine we’re talking about BC that these trees are not small.
Lindsay: They’re not what you might think of in terms of the kind of massive cedar trees you know, those iconic cedars that some of the parks have. Those actually are poached every once in a while., but the majority of poaching that happens on the island is Douglas Fur or Maple, and those trees are definitely still old growth. They’re very old and very tall, but they’re not as wide around and kind of the iconic species that we kind of identify with old growth on the coast. So, yeah, these are protected trees on land, kind of around cities, along waterways, and they are…. you asked me how they get stolen?
Jordan: Ya, what are the logistics of that? It seems difficult.
Lindsay: I mean, it happens mostly at night. You know, you’ve got someone that has access to a chainsaw, and, you know, maybe a truck, although sometimes even a car with an empty bed or an empty trunk, and they’re going to fell trees that are pretty close to the road, and towards the road so that the tree falls near to their vehicle, which makes it easier to what they called bucket up. So slice it up into smaller rounds that are easy to transport. So it’s really in the dead of night with a chainsaw and, you know, some sort of vehicle, and it’s not as complicated as you might think it would be.
Jordan: It does seem, though, if we’re talking about chainsaws and cars or maybe trucks near roads, that it would be a difficult crime to get away with. How often are these people caught? What kind of enforcement goes on?
Lindsay: So it’s actually pretty easy to get away with in the sense of that there are not a ton of natural resource officers, or conservation officers patrol consistently in these areas. So if you’re doing it at night and you managed to remove, you know the majority of the tree in your truck and drive away and you can offload that wood relatively quickly the chances of them catching you, you know, essentially with the product that you’ve stolen and being able to match it to the stump of the tree that it came from is very low.
Jordan: Wait. How do they do that? Do they have to do that to To convict someone?
Lindsay: Yes. You have to prove that the wood came; That was actually illegal, right? As opposed to a tree that, you know, maybe you’ve taken legally by a fire would permit or something like that. So it really does come down to you having to you prove that the wood is the same one that came from the tree of the of the stump that the natural resource officer found. So in some cases, you know, Luke I mentioned in that story, he’s seen people driving down these roads very quickly with wood in the back that he suspects is stolen. But even if he pulled them over and looked at the wood and found that, you know, maybe they didn’t have the correct permit to show that it was harvested correctly, he would still, in order to take it to court, he would still have to find the stump that wood came from.
Jordan: What are these trees worth, and how do you offload them? Who do you sell them to? What are they used for?
Lindsay: So, you know what I thought was interesting, and what I didn’t really expect was that Luke was telling me about how the majority of this wood is sold for firewood, especially at the time of year that I went. So it was end of February beginning of March, and the way that he described it to me is, you know, if we’ve had a particularly cold winter, lots of people that live on the island, they heat their homes using fire wood stoves, they have wood stoves, and if you’ve underestimated the amount of wood that you need in the beginning of the winter, when you order it, you’re going to need more. So at that time of year, there’s a good market for people to put a call out on Craigslist or Kijiji or Facebook and say, you know, I’m in, can anyone bring me half a cord of wood and someone can respond and say sure, $300, I’ll bring it tomorrow and there’s no incentive, really for that person buying to ask where it’s coming from. There are also other cases where the wood is being taken to mills or makeshift mills and being processed into things that might be sold for tables, for instance. But that is actually not as common as just really quick sales for firewood.
Jordan: I guess the $1,000,000 question is why have we seen this practice spike? Do we have any idea what’s driving it?
Lindsay: So I think that, you know Luke, or what I’ve been told by not only by Luke Clark but by other people in the logging industry is that it’s kind of this perfect storm of last year, in particular, the wood was going for a really high price unfortunately, I don’t have that number right in front of me, but I’ll get it. You know, so the market was quite good at that point, and we’re also dealing with a lot of socioeconomic challenges on you know, I think in the West Coast, in general, and across the country in general, and this is kind of rearing its head in terms of the logging industry. So as Nanaimo, for instance, as its economy changes away from sawmills, and lumber processing into the kind of knowledge economy that we hear about all the time. It has left, a large number of unemployed, struggling people on the island, and, you know, many of those people are comfortable using a chainsaw, and they know where to take wood, and they know, you know, generally how much they might get for it, and you have a need for fast money. That’s kind of what has been leading to this increase in stolen timber.
Jordan: Did you go out and see some of the places where these trees are taken?
Lindsay: Yup. Yeah, I spent the day in Nanaimo kind of driving along, yeah, driving alongside Luke in his work truck, and, you know, the minute we kind of turned into some of these protected areas, we started seeing, I think we saw three sites overall and two of those were new that had yet to be input into the database there, and then we only got turned away essentially because it had snowed quite a bit. But we could have gone, you know, much longer in land and seen many more cases for sure.
Jordan: How much of a problem is this environmentallY? You know, on the one hand, obviously, these are really old trees. On the other hand, they are just; You’re telling me they’re taking them one or two at a time, right? And it’s a couple of trees in a forest.
Lindsay: Yeah, so I think that, you know, that’s the argument is that if someone really needs one tree at a time, are we really, you know, should we funnel our concern more towards kind of broad scale illegal logging by corporations, but environmentally, it is an issue because we don’t have a ton of old growth left, and what we do have left is protected for a reason, and the reason is you know that even if it’s, for instance, dead standing, which means that the trees aren’t alive any more, but it is, you know, still standing. It provides habitat for endangered species, It provides habitat also for plant life, like Mosses and insects that use it, and it also eventually will fall down of its own accord and recycled back into the earth. So it’s still very connected to the ecosystem and and provides the space for more old growth to grow from it, and so because we have so little of that left it does matter that over the course of a year, more of these trees are being taken one at a time.
Jordan: You explained the environmental side of this, but what kind of fascinated me about this story as well, is how closely it butts up with the human side. So tell me about some of those towns on the island that are changing and how closely it brings people into contact with the trees.
Jordan: I mean, this is, I think, a really interesting aspect to the whole story. So the economy is, you know, the economy on Vancouver Island is changing, and it’s, you know, it’s changing for lots of reasons, including conservation efforts, and efforts to preserve some of these old growth trees for their ecological value, as opposed to simply board feet or what they can get at the mill, and what that means is that you also have new people coming in that work maybe remotely, and they want to live in a beautiful area, and they value the natural environment of that area in a different way than someone who their family has earned their living through logging over the ages. And so there is… there’s a bit of a clash going on in that air, in these areas of Vancouver Island,where you have legacy economies is that are slowly being regulated and, in a sense, dying out and new economies that value the natural world in terms of opportunities to recreate on it and the kind of more social and cultural aspects of what it means to spend time in the forest.
Jordan: It’s interesting because the people that you talk about moving to the island and looking for the you know, the picture perfect place and outdoor recreation, all that stuff. Those aren’t the people that are actually taking the trees, the people who are taking the trees are;It could be argued, and I’m just interested in this argument. Are the people that really need them and do need to live off the land?
Lindsay: No that’s exactly it. I mean, that’s the kind of deeper question here is can we find empathy for a poacher who’s taking a tree that you and I might find valuable for its stunning beauty and the aw that we feel standing underneath it, but that doesn’t mean that it should usurp the needs of people that you know are truly from a community and have been living there and working there for generations and who experience and value the forest in a different way. I’ve done some other interviews on this topic in places like Northern California and in Washington, where a lot of tree poachers also are kind of, you know, struggling with unemployment and struggling with addiction issues as this kind of larger shift in our culture takes place in terms of how we work and how the natural world fits into our economies. And, you know, I heard 1 poacher say, You know, I’m not killing the whole forest, I’m taking one tree and I’m desperate. So what is the big deal? And I can’t counter that. I can’t.
Jordan: How did the people who have to arrest these folks or at least find them, I guess, feel about that kind of contradiction?
Lindsay: I think that they’re really sensitive, you know, I think there’s a part in that story that I wrote for the Atlantic, where you know, Luke shares a parking lot with this new community housing building that’s been built in Nanaimo to address the homelessness issue that they’re dealing with there, and he’s running into people that he’s given tickets, too, you know, recently for illegal logging. And he, you know, he feels quite comfortable going up and saying, how’s it going? You know what’s going on with this issue, you know, that you’re experiencing and people they also feel comfortable telling him, you know? Well if, you know, it’s pretty easy to offload some firewood at this time of year. It’s pretty easy to get rid of, or to log a tree and and sell the wood for a pretty quick profit. You know, one reason why I really wanted to interview him was I felt that he was really empathetic to the issue overall and that he understood that the people in this region were struggling in ways that he had seen in the town where he grew up in Powell River, and that he was looking for alternative ways instead of simply, you know, ticketing people and then having them be fined or being unable to ticket people and having it be entirely reactionary. But I thought that was interesting.
Jordan: when you talk to Luke or people who live alongside him in these towns, or just people who have been there awhile. What do they see happening down the line? Is this going to slow down? Can towns find a way to kind of balance the issues they’re dealing with right now?
Lindsay: I believe that what Luke was trying to communicate to me was that unless our legal systems start taking into account the kind of holistic importance of these natural resources, that poaching is just going to continue along the path that it’s continued on and that it may flow in terms of market value of the wood, but the catalyst for poaching isn’t going to change. And I think it’s a larger societal issue in terms of OK, we’re turning away from these logging and natural resource based economies, which in many ways it’s like fantastic. But what are we going to do for the people that have worked in those communities?
Jordan: So what’s being done by the natural resource officers? Or I guess, the department’s they work for to try to stop this?
Lindsay: I think through Luke they found someone who cares a lot and who has spent a lot of time, you know, in the field looking for these cases and as part of that has taken on kind of additional outreach and education work to prevent it. So he and his supervisor have been working on installing signs in these protected areas that say, you know, by the way, logging from here is prohibited, and if you see anyone do it, please call this number. So those weren’t there before, and they’ve also worked on meeting with Crown lawyers who prosecute the cases that they are keeping track of and really trying to work with them in terms of getting the financial penalty increased.
Jordan: What is it now?
Lindsay: It depends on the tree that’s stolen and how much evidence they have, etc. You know something that I think is quite interesting is that it’s considered a theft, a property theft from the provincial government. So there’s a threshold right in terms of theft under $5000, theft over $5000, and theft under $5000 is very hard to convince, you know, an overworked prosecutor to take on that case. And so if the majority of trees are going to be valued under $5000 which they are, it would take a pretty large case for a prosecutor to want to take that forward, basically. And so by trying to educate prosecutors in terms of, you know, the dollar value on the market might be $3000 but overall it can be valued at much more than $5000 due to the habitat it provides and the benefits that it gives, for instance, to our tourism industry, or to our recreation industry that’s really what they’re going for, that’s how they’re trying to convince more prosecutors to bring these cases forward, and and in doing so, you know, making the stakes higher so that people won’t even try to steal the trees in the first place.
Jordan: Thanks Lindsay.
Lindsay: Thank you.
Jordan: Lindsay Borgen, writer, and an oral historian. That was The Big Story, for more from us head to thebigstorypodcast.ca, you’ll find all our episodes there. You can also find whatever we have to say on our Twitter account @thebigstoryfpn. If you want other podcasts, we strongly recommend the ones at frequencypodcastnetwork.com and of course, we are wherever you get podcasts on Apple, on Google, on Stitcher, on Spotify. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. Thanks for listening. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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