Mongabay Series: Evolving Conservation

DNA evidence just helped convict illegal loggers in the US Pacific Northwest

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The theft of bigleaf maple to feed the demand for rare tonewoods used by musical instrument makers has been a persistent problem in the U.S. Pacific Northwest for years, but now law enforcement officials say they’ve brought a ring of illegal loggers to justice — and used DNA evidence to convict them.

DNA evidence just helped convict illegal loggers in the US Pacific Northwest
  • Harold Clause Kupers, a wood buyer and mill owner in Washington state, pled guilty in a District Court in Tacoma to violating the Lacey Act.
  • Kupers allegedly taught three other defendants, all of whom have pled guilty to theft and damaging government property, how to identify and harvest the most desirable trees, known as “figured” bigleaf maple.
  • The U.S. Forest Service assembled a team to build a genetic reference database of bigleaf maples and applied DNA profiling technologies to secure the conviction against Kupers and his cohorts.

The theft of bigleaf maple to feed the demand for rare tonewoods used by musical instrument makers has been a persistent problem in the U.S. Pacific Northwest for years, but now law enforcement officials say they’ve brought a ring of illegal loggers to justice — and used DNA evidence to convict them.

Harold Clause Kupers, a wood buyer and mill owner in Washington state, pled guilty last November in a U.S. District Court in Tacoma to purchasing multiple pieces of wood without requiring the seller to show the proper permits, a violation of the Lacey Act.

The wood purchased by Kupers, owner of J&L Tonewoods in Winlock, WA, was bigleaf maple stolen from Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington state, according to the US Department of Justice (DOJ). Kupers allegedly taught three other defendants how to identify and harvest the most desirable trees, known as “figured” bigleaf maple.

All three of Kupers co-defendants have pled guilty to theft and damaging government property. Altogether, Kupers sold nearly $500,000 worth of bigleaf maple to US instrument manufacturers like PRS Guitars, the DOJ said. This is the first time that the Lacey Act has been applied in a case of illegal interstate timber trading.

The Lacey Act is a law originally designed to rein in the illegal trade in wildlife that was amended in 2008 to include plants, thereby prohibiting the trade in illegally sourced wood. Since the amendment was adopted, the Lacey Act has led to high-profile investigations of Gibson Guitars and Lumber Liquidators. Both were accused of importing illegally sourced timber into the US and ultimately settled with the DOJ to avoid a criminal trial.

Photo 4 - Anne Minden, Minden and 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 credit: Anne Minden, Minden & Associates.

The Lacey Act has proven remarkably effective at curbing illegal wood imports into the US, research has shown. According to a 2015 analysis, illegal wood imports have declined in the US by as much as 32 to 44 percent — though American imports of illegal timber are still worth as much as $3 billion per year.

Anne Minden, a retired U.S. Forest Service officer and technical expert who gave testimony in the case against Kupers and his cohorts, once estimated that hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of bigleaf maple wood is stolen every year from both public and private lands in Washington state.

Distortions in the wood grain of bigleaf maple logs can create distinctive patterns known as “figuring.” A single log of figured maple — sought after by woodworkers and used to make high-end guitars — can sell for tens of thousands of dollars. But cases of illegally logged bigleaf maple had proven difficult to investigate in the past, mainly because of how hard it was to match seized timber to specific theft sites.

So when the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) believed it had evidence of illegal logging activity in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in 2013, the agency teamed up with a company called DoubleHelix Tracking Technologies, the University of Adelaide, and the World Resources Institute (WRI) to develop the first genetic reference database for bigleaf maple, allowing investigators to map out genetic variations across the territory occupied by bigleaf maples in the Pacific Northwest.

Photo 3 - Anne Minden, Minden and 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 credit: Anne Minden, Minden & Associates.

Each maple tree has a unique “genetic fingerprint,” DoubleHelix Chief Scientific Officer and University of Adelaide professor Andrew Lowe said, making it possible to match pieces of sawn wood sold by Kupers to the stumps of the trees his three co-defendants stole from Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

“With this technology, wood buyers can verify whether or not bigleaf maple has been legally harvested,” Lowe said in a statement. “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.”

These types of reference databases, coupled with DNA profiling techniques, are a game-changer when it comes to tracking high-value species like bigleaf maple through the supply chain and prosecuting illegal loggers, Ron Malamphy, a USFS law enforcement officer who worked on the case, said in a statement.

“We are excited that the DNA evidence helped push the thieves to settle out of court,” Malamphy said. “This type of technology is setting a new precedent for future Lacey Act convictions.”

Photo 1 - 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 credit: Double Helix Tracking Technologies.
Photo 2 - Double Helix Tracking Technologies
More than 400 bigleaf maple trees were sampled and analyzed to build a DNA profiling reference database that would enable experts to match seized logs to the stumps of bigleaf maple trees in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Photo credit: Double Helix Tracking Technologies.
Photo 5 - Anne Minden, Minden and Associates
Bark is scraped off in a process called checking to see if there is any figure in the bigleaf maple tree. This particular tree shows patterns known as quilt maple figure. Photo credit: Anne Minden, Minden & Associates.

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