On September 20th, 2017 we learned about

Policing and preventing the burl poaching that puts redwood forests at risk

How much would you pay for a piece of a tree’s metabolic dysfunction? What if was the shape of a wall clock or coffee table? Even if you’re hesitating, there’s enough demand for what’s essentially deformed wood that national and state park rangers have begun working with police to deter poachers. The wood, known as burls, is valuable enough that so called “midnight burlers” are sneaking into parks under the cover of night, removing portions of trees and possibly putting the forest at risk.

Twisted tissue in tree tumors

You’ve probably seen a burl at some point, as they’re not uncommon on large trees. Thanks to an injury or just exposure to infected soil, a tree will become infected with bacteria likeĀ Agrobacterium tumefaciens or fungi likeĀ Exobasidium vaccinii. The pathogen will alter the plant’s DNA, causing the metabolism speed up growth in one part of the tree, essentially resulting in a large, woody tumor. As the growth gets bigger, it can bulge out from a tree trunk, sometimes ending up with a larger diameter than the tree itself. Trees can survive with one or multiple burls for many years, although there is evidence that they’re a bit of a drain on the tree’s health, as burl-carrying trees tend to die earlier than their burl-free kin.

While the trees don’t benefit from growing burls, woodworkers love them. When cut open, burls reveal a much more chaotic, randomized structure than healthy trunk. The wood grain in a burl is swirled and uneven, often containing multiple shades of color, and can be polished for rather spectacular effect. Importantly, it’s also just very different from healthy wood, and that rarity is what’s making it valuable enough for poachers to steal, even out of State and National parks.

Blocking the burlers

California’s redwood forests have been targeted by poachers for the last few years. Morning patrols would turn up massive trees with enormous holes chopped out of their trunks. With over a hundred thousand acres of forest to patrol, there’s been little hope of catching thieves red-handed, as the poachers can cut a burl and deliver it to a buyer in a single night. The wood buyers are somewhat complacent, but aside from weird delivery hours, there hasn’t been a clear way for them to obviously know when a burl has been illegally harvested.

That might be changing though, as rangers and law enforcement have been trying new tactics to slow down the poaching. Careful mapping of which trees were attacked revealed that poachers aren’t picking the best or most hidden burls, but simply targeting trees close to the road. This has allowed rangers to better plan their patrols, reducing the amount of territory they might need to guard each night. After a tree is poached, advances in DNA analysis may soon make it easy to identify which tree a particular burl came from. By making the wood traceable, wood buyers may need to become a little more thoughtful about where their supplies come from.

Fighting for the forest

While trees generally do better without burls, preventing poachers from cutting them off is good news, especially for redwoods. While the burls represent a metabolic disorder, they’re also packed with nutrients. Losing a dense ball of nutrients isn’t great for the adult tree, but it’s also bad for redwoods’ suckers. When the young trees try to start growing, a missing burl robs them of a considerable source of nutrients, hurting the forest’s natural rejuvenation. Additionally, since many poachers are working with chainsaws as quickly as possible in the middle of the night, the cuts to remove the burls are often rough and haphazard, raising the remaining tree’s risk of new infections.

It should be noted that not all burled wood is obtained illegally. Many woodworkers harvest burls from less vulnerable species of tree, and do so in a more responsible way. As demand, and prices, rise, more midnight burlers are likely to try to pass their goods off as legitimate. At this point, it’s in everyone’s interest to make sure the poached wood is kept out of the market, and our living rooms.


My kids said: Maybe if the poachers know that they’re hurting the redwood trees they’ll stop.

That would be fantastic. Unfortunately, poaching markets seem to be tied not just to demand from buyers, but also to downturns in other parts of the economy. Chances are, many poachers feel like they don’t have a lot of choices, and a few thousand dollars for some stolen wood seems like the easiest answer.

Source: How Forest Forensics Could Prevent the Theft of Ancient Trees by Lyndsie Bourgon, Smithsonian

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