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Plant DNA evidence supports landmark Lacey Act conviction of bigleaf maple theft

More than 400 bigleaf maple trees were sampled and analysed to build a DNA fingerprint database that would enable experts to match seized logs to the stumps of bigleaf maple trees in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Photo credits: Double Helix Tracking Technologies

More than 400 bigleaf maple trees were sampled and analysed to build a DNA fingerprint database that would enable experts to match seized logs to the stumps of bigleaf maple trees in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Photo credits: Double Helix Tracking Technologies

The last of four defendants prosecuted for stealing wood from Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington State, USA, has pled guilty, in a landmark case that marks the first time the U.S. government has prosecuted a Lacey Act case for illegal interstate trade of wood products within the United States. DNA evidence developed by a consortium of experts was an important element of the Government’s case against the timber thieves.

The theft of bigleaf maple in the Pacific Northwest of United States has been a persistent problem. Under Washington state law, bigleaf maple can only be legally traded with a valid permit. According to the complaint, one of the four defendants, Harold Clause Kupers, 48, of J&L Tonewoods, helped the other three learn how to identify and harvest figured bigleaf maple, and eventually sold more than $800,000 worth of illegally possessed bigleaf maple wood to guitar companies inside and outside the state.

One of the popular sites in Gifford Pinchot National Forest amongst illegal loggers is known as “The Slaughterhouse”. Illegal loggers usually cut the logs up in the forest and take only the figured blocks with them, leaving the rest of the log behind, as pictured. Photo credits: Double Helix Tracking Technologies

One of the popular sites in Gifford Pinchot National Forest amongst illegal loggers is known as “The Slaughterhouse”. Illegal loggers usually cut the logs up in the forest and take only the figured blocks with them, leaving the rest of the log behind, as pictured. Photo credits: Double Helix Tracking Technologies

Highly valuable maple wood linked to drugs

Distortions in maple wood grain can create patterns known as “figuring,” prized by woodworkers and used particularly in the musical instrument trade to make unique guitars. When milled, a single log of figured maple can be worth tens of thousands of dollars – making it a tempting target for thieves.

Cases of bigleaf maple theft in the region have also been linked with methamphetamine use, giving illegally procured wood the nickname “meth maple”. Anne Minden, a retired U.S. Forest Service officer with 27 years of experience in forest law enforcement, was brought in as a technical expert for this case. She estimates that at a minimum, hundreds of thousands of US dollars’ worth of bigleaf maple wood is stolen every year from both public and private lands in the State of Washington.

The unique patterns in the grain of some bigleaf maple trees, known as “figure”, makes it highly valuable. The picture shows one such block of bigleaf maple wood after it’s been processed at the mill. Photo credits: Anne Minden, Minden & Associates

The unique patterns in the grain of some bigleaf maple trees, known as “figure”, makes it highly valuable. The picture shows one such block of bigleaf maple wood after it’s been processed at the mill. Photo credits: Anne Minden, Minden & Associates

Fingerprints of a different kind

Timber theft and illegal trade affects a large proportion of the world’s trade in forest products. In the case of bigleaf maple, limitations on being able to definitively match seized timber back to suspected theft sites have made previous prosecutions difficult.

In 2013, the United States Forest Service (USFS) believed they had evidence of illegal logging activity in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington State. They enlisted the help of Double Helix Tracking Technologies (DoubleHelix) to build a DNA profiling reference database that would enable experts to match seized logs to the stumps of illegally harvested bigleaf maple trees in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS), DoubleHelix and the University of Adelaide, with help from World Resources Institute (WRI) teamed up to develop the first genetic reference database for bigleaf maple, which maps out genetic variations across a subset of this species' natural range in the Pacific Northwest.

Just like individual humans, each individual maple tree has a unique genetic fingerprint, making it possible to match pieces of sawn wood with the stumps of the trees from which they were cut using a technique called DNA profiling. “With this technology, wood buyers can verify whether or not bigleaf maple has been legally harvested,” said Professor Andrew Lowe of the University of Adelaide, and Chief Scientific Officer of DoubleHelix. “Our database indicates that with these markers, the likelihood of two trees having the same DNA profile is as low as one in 428 sextillion; there are thought to be approximately 70 sextillion stars in the universe.”

From stump to guitar

Through the continued development of these types of reference databases, DNA profiling techniques have the potential to be especially useful for tracking high-value species commonly used in high-end guitars through the supply chain, such as bigleaf maple.

“The onus is on industry leaders to ensure the timber they use comes from legitimate sources. In the future, as these tools become more available, industry leaders will be able to participate in protecting national forests and these magnificent old growth trees.” said Darren Thomas, CEO of DoubleHelix.

Science vs illegal loggers

“Scientific methods such as DNA analysis can support forest law enforcement just as they have done with many other kinds of crime,” said Dr. Charles Barber, Director of the Forest Legality Initiative at WRI. “WRI is working globally to help develop the scientific methods and reference databases that can combat illegal logging and associated trade worldwide.”

“This is a game-changing case for the Forest Service,” said Ron Malamphy, the USFS Law Enforcement Officer who first approached DoubleHelix for their expertise to support this case. “We are excited that the DNA evidence helped push the thieves to settle out of court. This type of technology is setting a new precedent for future Lacey Act convictions.”

When bigleaf maple is freshly cut, it has a light blonde color that can be quite visible. A common method used by illegal loggers is to place a slab of moss on top of the stump to conceal the stump from law enforcement and also members of the public.  Photo credits: Anne Minden, Minden & Associates

When bigleaf maple is freshly cut, it has a light blonde color that can be quite visible. A common method used by illegal loggers is to place a slab of moss on top of the stump to conceal the stump from law enforcement and also members of the public.  Photo credits: Anne Minden, Minden & Associates

“It’s going to get harder and harder, as these databases become available, for criminals to launder their illegal timber and profit from it. We’re closing down a source of illegal revenue for criminals in this country and protecting our national heritage.” said USFS international expert Shelley Gardner.

The DNA markers that were developed for this study have been peer-reviewed and were recently published in the journal Conservation Genetic Resources.

About Lacey Act

The Lacey Act is a U.S. wildlife protection law that was amended in 2008 to include plants, making it illegal to trade in illegally sourced wood products. The Act has been notably applied in the high-profile investigations of Gibson Guitar and Lumber Liquidators, companies that were accused of importing illegally sourced timber.