Is Stealing Redwoods Sometimes Okay?: On Lyndsie Bourgon’s “Tree Thieves”

By Jeff WheelwrightDecember 30, 2022

Is Stealing Redwoods Sometimes Okay?: On Lyndsie Bourgon’s “Tree Thieves”

Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods by Lyndsie Bourgon

IN 2018, LYNDSIE BOURGON, a Canadian journalist and historian, used a fellowship from National Geographic to investigate illegal logging in the Peruvian Amazon. Called Infierno, the wilderness she covered consists of thousands of acres of national conservation tracts. The name Infierno refers not to the heat of the place but to corpses found floating in the river after a flu epidemic.

Part of Bourgon’s book explores a seemingly familiar story about poverty and bureaucratic corruption in Amazonia, where poor squatters needing space move into stands of trees they don’t own. Logging ensues, and so do illegal mining and oil drilling. Since the area is too big for the limited number of rangers to cover, the authorities employ tactics like sound-sensitive GPS devices, hidden in the trees above the level where an illicit chainsaw might operate. When the noise of a saw is relayed to a police camp, the rangers are sometimes able to respond and make arrests. Nevertheless, in brazen bunches and in single, stealthy cuts, Infierno is slowly being denuded of its tallest and most valuable trees, such as the graceful ironwood, one of Bourgon’s favorite species.

She estimates that as much as 80 percent of harvested wood in Amazonia is removed illegally. These losses chip away at the 120 million metric tons of carbon stored in the unlogged forests there. As far as Bourgon is concerned, international timber companies in Peru qualify as “tree thieves” just as much as the poor squatter families.

Although compelling, Bourgon’s chapters on the Amazon are placed at the back of the book, almost like appendices. Evidently, this is because her most intense reporting, conducted after her return from South America, takes place in the Pacific Northwest, close to where she lives. The temperate forests of North America are also plagued by tree thieves, with an estimated $1 billion worth of trees illegally cut each year.

The true interest of Bourgon’s book is the coastal redwood zone between Northern California and Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Here the eponymous redwoods, mixed with cedar, maple, and Douglas fir, suck moisture from ocean fog and heavy rainfall and acquire tremendous girths. In its natural state, a redwood forest is extraordinarily dense. “[J]ust two acres of this land can host nearly 10,000 cubic meters of biomass,” Bourgon notes, and gigantic root systems “continue to feed the forest long after the body of the tree has disappeared.” Rather miraculously, a redwood is able to regenerate itself by sending up a spate of new trees from a single downed log. Soggy conditions don’t bother redwoods because their wood is nearly rotproof. As local gardeners know well, redwood chips make a great mulch but a terrible soil amendment, and redwood garden furniture seemingly lasts forever because of the resistance of the wood to breaking down.

The redwood’s resilience is, however, its Achilles heel — the reason for 150 years of overcutting. Between 1850 and 1990, says Bourgon, some 96 percent of the original stands have been lost. The surviving trees are confined to a 35-mile-wide belt near Highway 101 in California. Bourgon focuses on the threats to these few remaining giant trees, a single one of which can yield thousands of dollars. Sticking out like sore thumbs in state and federal parks and abutting lands, the giants are easy targets for poachers. Bourgon’s major purpose — detailed at close range in her text — is to analyze the exploits of the small-scale cutting and poaching taking place in this redwood tip of Northern California, with lesser emphasis on the destruction of old-growth rainforest in her home region of British Columbia.

Though acknowledging that stealing an old-growth redwood or cedar is wrong, even an abomination, Bourgon wants the reader to consider “survival” — the word is yoked to “crime” in her subtitle — as the motive for illicit activity. Just as we may sympathize with the faceless peasantry in the Brazilian Amazon, doing what they have to do to survive, we may come to do the same with Bourgon’s American redwood thieves. On the one hand, they are a motley cast of informants barely bothering to disguise their illegal methods, but on the other hand, when depicted in their economic and historical context, they become harder to judge. These people are proud and self-reliant individualists, quintessentially American in some respects. Some readers may grudgingly come to admire them.

Entering their world, the first thing we learn is that a poacher eschews the word “poaching.” His business is to “take” solitary trees when law enforcement is looking the other way, particularly if the ownership of the redwood is in doubt. Historian Bourgon evokes Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham, who skirmished over the “taking” of forest products like game and wood from what were ostensibly public lands. “[T]rees were an integral part of the commoner’s life,” she writes, “and the forest was dubbed ‘the poor’s overcoat.’” By the 17th century, wood-gathering for housing and heating became a crime in Europe and North America as private holdings were extended and parks created. The forests became “a place of folk crime.” The poorer families who relied on the forest for sustenance objected to being relegated to the wrong side of the law — a theme Bourgon often returns to, citing “social resentment” and “economic inequality.”

The California coastal town of Orick is Bourgon’s base camp. Its first sawmill began operating in 1908. By the 1950s, when clear-cutting became the dominant practice, logging was no longer a small-bore activity. Poaching wasn’t an issue initially because there was plenty of work and a good income in the mills. But when winter storms swept through, most destructively in 1955 and again in 1964, the clear-cut slopes turned into muddy hellscapes. In the ’64 storm’s aftermath a ranger described “a lunar landscape, with the raw edges of the mountains exposed.” Hence the obvious need for environmental regulation, whose successes would eventually drive the big sawmills out of business.

Save the Redwoods League and the Sierra Club lobbied to lock up the big trees; Redwood National Park was designated in 1968. A generation later, the northern spotted owl, which requires old-growth forest, gained endangered species protection, putting more of the woods out of the chainsaws’ reach. Sawmills in Asia began to compete with American mills to process raw timber. It all came to a head in the 1990s, the bitter period known as the Timber Wars, as ardent environmentalists confronted truculent woodsmen. By the turn of the century, the power of the lumber companies had collapsed, and the most insular of the logging families, buckling under the loss of their livelihood, succumbed to divorce and drug abuse. Bourgon describes the upshot: the emergence of disaffected outlaws who turned their skills to poaching.

Most redwood poaching is selective; rarely is the whole tree taken. Like an oyster, a mature redwood harbors a kind of pearl known as a burl. Growing at the base of the tree or swelling just underground, the knob of a burl consists of thousands of pounds of smooth wood unblemished by knots. Just as a rhino may be killed only for its horn, a redwood may be destroyed for its burl. If the tree is gutted but left standing, it may not be killed outright, but its wounds may doom it to insect infestations. At the turn of the 20th century, poachers began supplying local furniture makers with premium burl wood. The paperwork certifying a burl’s provenance was perforce fishy. Fly-by-night burl shops began to pop up on the outskirts of the state and national parks.

Bourgon’s tree thieves maintain that they’re only trying to make a living like everyone else. She managed to win the confidence of a half dozen who talked to her on the record, including Danny Garcia, Derek Hughes, and Chris Guffie. They acknowledged not only redwood poaching but also illegal drug use, the one habit feeding the other. Garcia, a methamphetamine user, was a specialist in harvesting redwood burls and selling to shops that ring the forest. He was jailed briefly in 2014. Derek Hughes acted more like a craftsman, using a lathe to “turn” wood and create bowls and vases for sale. Rather than steal wood in the forest, he foraged for redwood logs that had washed up on public beaches. (Harvesting such driftwood is illegal.) We watch Hughes beat several criminal charges, but he faces a reckoning in court by the end of the book. And Chris Guffie had the reputation of “the most prominent outlaw” in Orick. He openly bragged about robbing wood from the parks and was said to wear wigs and sunglasses to foil the authorities’ hidden cameras. Guffie was considered too smart to nab, hence the officials’ focus on Garcia and Hughes.

Several lesser thieves, and a mix of wives and girlfriends, fill out Bourgon’s checkered cast. Meanwhile, the law enforcement figures in her story admit to Bourgon that they’re overmatched. As in the Infierno tract in South America, redwood thieves often work at night, and must be caught in the act if charges are going to stick. Bourgon records the rangers’ frustration. The sound of the crime, Bourgon writes, was “the choppy fluttering of a single chain saw whirring to life in the deep woods.” When she looks over the border from California to Canada, she finds much the same frustrations. Less than 10 percent of forest crimes reported there are processed in court.

Bourgon is not without solutions. As at game parks in Africa, Bourgon suggests that “community forests” be established in redwood country. Rather than parks patrolled by armed guards, local guardians might be hired to act as the eyes and ears of the forest. Poachers might be turned toward honest work. As it now stands, the tougher the rangers behave, pulling over suspects on the highway and issuing threats, the more the poachers dig in. Paranoia flares. “They don’t want me to be their enemy,” one man warns the author. “They won’t have any trees left.”

Tree Thieves is a vividly written, fine piece of investigative reporting. But does Bourgon end up admiring her subjects a little bit too much? In her acknowledgments section, she praises the “deep honesty” of Garcia and the others, crediting them for answering “very personal questions.” “Commitment” and “kindness” are among their high qualities. Really? Many years ago, I wrote a similar study of deer jacking in Massachusetts — the out-of-season shooting of white-tailed deer. The leader of the outlaw gang took me into his confidence. His feelings about jacking deer were complicated. On the one hand, he felt entitled, as a man with local roots, to harvest venison to feed his family. On the other hand, he cultivated a kind of anger about the deer’s Bambi image, the oohing and aahing over the pretty deer by nature lovers who spent their weekends in the country. The two feelings merged to justify his illegal activity.

Bourgon’s poachers likewise deploy a raft of arguments to justify what they do. They egg each other on when doubts arise. Bourgon asks herself: “I wonder how someone who lives surrounded by the crushing beauty of a redwood forest can simultaneously love it and kill it.” Her use of “crushing” caused me to raise an eyebrow, because her informants might have come up with that word. Later, Bourgon quotes a sociologist who credits rural residents for their capacity both to love nature and to cut trees. We muddled city folk, on the other hand, bemused by trees’ implicit “immortality,” cannot summon the necessary ambivalence, according to the sociologist.

The trump card in the sawyer’s deck of justifications is played in the book’s concluding paragraph. Hughes absolves himself for his crimes by questioning the very ownership of the trees. “And if you want to get to the bare bones,” he declares, “all this land belongs to the Yurok” — members of the local Native American tribe, who until this point have made no claims and hardly played a role in the book at all.


Jeff Wheelwright is the author of The Irritable Heart: The Medical Mystery of the Gulf War (2001) and The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess: Race, Religion, and DNA (2012).

LARB Contributor

Jeff Wheelwright is the former science editor of Life magazine and the author of three books, including The Irritable Heart: The Medical Mystery of the Gulf War (2001) and The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess: Race, Religion, and DNA (2012). The latter was supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is presently at work on a book about Herman Melville in the Holy Land, for which he is seeking a publisher.


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