Forest Service Geneticist Makes the New York Times: Olympic National Forest, the Maple Fire and Tree Poaching

The Maple Fire in Olympic National Forest in Washington in 2018 burned 3,300 acres.Credit…USDA Forest Service

Here’s a link to an interesting New York Times story.

In the spring and summer of 2018, a crew of poachers had been chopping down trees by night in the Olympic National Forest in Washington State, federal prosecutors said.

On Aug. 3, they came upon the wasp’s nest.

It was at the base of a bigleaf maple, a species of hardwood tree with a shimmering grain that is prized for its use in violins, guitars and other musical instruments. The crew was selling bigleaf maples to a mill in Tumwater, using forged permits, prosecutors said. Logging is banned in the forest, a vast wilderness encompassing nearly a million acres.

The timber poachers sprayed insecticide and most likely gasoline on the nest, and burned it, the authorities said. But they were unable to douse the fire with water bottles, so they fled, prosecutors said.

The fire spread out from the forest’s Elk Lake area, near Hood Canal, burning 3,300 acres and costing about $4.2 million to contain, prosecutors said. It came to be known as the Maple Fire.

As to “Logging is banned in the forest, a vast wilderness encompassing nearly a million acres,” you might wonder if that is true (regardless of what might be meant by “wilderness” in this context), so I checked the handy Headwaters Economics version of the Forest Service cut and sold report, and it appears that in 2018 the Olympic sold 20,436 MBF, which suggests that in fact logging must not be banned. Perhaps what the prosecutors meant is that “logging without a specific permit or contract” is banned, which would make sense.

A government research geneticist testified at trial that the wood Mr. Wilke sold to a mill was a genetic match to three poached maple trees that investigators found in the Elk Lake area.

Like all living organisms, trees have DNA, the research geneticist who testified, Dr. Richard Cronn of the U.S. Forest Service, said in a phone interview on Tuesday night.

“They receive one set of chromosomes from their mom and their dad,” Dr. Cronn said. “That makes it possible to uniquely distinguish every tree out there if we have the appropriate genetic markers.”

In this case, researchers built a DNA database specifically for the Olympic National Forest, sampling 230 trees and coming up with an estimate that the probability of a coincidental match was one in one undecillion — or one followed by 36 zeros, Dr. Cronn said.

One limitation to a more widespread use of this technique in criminal prosecutions, Dr. Cronn said, is that databases must be created for individual tree species. This can be costly and time-consuming, he said, but he added that advances in genomics technology have made doing so easier.

“If you think about a human forensic database, you’re only making it for one species,” he said. “The trees that are targeted for timber theft across the U.S. are really different. We have maple in the Pacific Northwest, walnut in the eastern U.S. We would need a database for each of the species, so that is a bit of a barrier.”

Dr. Cronn said the use of tree DNA in this case would be a deterrent to similar theft.

He said researchers had created a bigleaf maple database of more than 1,100 tree samples, covering a region “basically from the U.S.-Mexico border all the way up to Vancouver Island and Canada.”

“Any time trees are taken in that range can now be investigated,” Dr. Cronn said. “We will be ready at the next trial.”

4 thoughts on “Forest Service Geneticist Makes the New York Times: Olympic National Forest, the Maple Fire and Tree Poaching”

  1. Did the evidence help convict the miscreants of timber theft or causing a wildfire or both? If so, has this been publicized to the extent it could prove a deterrent?


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