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The trees in our national parks, such as these in California’s Redwood National Park, belong to all of us.

The spike in illegal wildlife trade continues: in 2013, poachers killed 1,004 rhinos in South Africa alone; and in 2012, some 15,000 elephants were slaughtered at 42 sites across 27 African countries, according to CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

So when I recently received an e-mail on the poaching crisis, I wasn’t surprised—until I saw the identity of the new victims. The subjects of this communication weren’t rhinos or elephants but coast redwood trees.

This new type of poacher, however, isn’t taking the whole tree; just its burls, the large, natural protrusions that are crucial for redwood regeneration. But like hacking off a rhino’s horn or an elephant’s tusk, cutting off the burls from redwoods can cause death.

Coast redwoods, beings that are among the tallest—at 400 feet—and oldest living things on Earth, draw nearly half a million visitors to California every year. For a thousand years or more, some of these titans have withstood fire, high winds, lightning and other natural disasters. But will they be able to survive poachers?  

A new type of poacher is stalking our trees. ©Marshall Neeck

The burl market

According to Save the Redwoods League, the sender of my e-mail, woodworkers prize redwood burls for their intricate patterns. Burl wood can be fashioned into bowls, clocks, furniture (such as coffee tables or bar countertops), knife handles and knickknacks. High-quality burl wood sells for $2 to $3 a pound, so a burl that weighs hundreds of pounds can bring in thousands of dollars.

Legal sources for burl wood include trees on private land, naturally fallen trees or legally logged trees. But demand is high, and there are fewer burls available from these legitimate sources. Add to this a sluggish local economy, and selling burl wood becomes attractive to some people. Much like elephant poaching is funding wars, the money gained from burl poaching can pay the bills for drug users with expensive methamphetamine habits.

Since 2012, poaching attacks on coast redwoods have damaged 25 trees in Redwood National and State Parks, which is located 300 miles north of San Francisco. A UNESCO World Heritage site, this 132,000-acre parks unit holds a significant portion of the planet’s remaining virgin coast redwoods. After a history of being heavily logged by timber companies, less than 5 percent of California’s original old-growth forests remain. Nearly all of these old-growth redwoods—and their highly valued burls—are located within the protected boundaries of national and state parks along a fog-shrouded strip of land between Big Sur and the California-Oregon border.

Park rangers have stated that poachers first fired up their chainsaws to take burls off of fallen redwoods. When they ran out, the criminals then went after the standing trees. Last year, thieves felled a 400-year-old redwood to access a 500-pound burl that was 60 feet up. It was the first time an entire tree had been cut down for its burl.

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Less than 5 percent of California’s original old-growth forests remain.

Redwood regeneration

Coast redwoods regenerate either from seedlings, which have a survival rate of 1 percent; or from their burls, the bumpy, bulbous knobs located anywhere on the tree (but usually near the ground) that contain dormant bud material. Normally, when a tree topples over due to old age or a traumatic event, a burl will sprout new growth, forming a new tree.

Cutting a burl from a tree increases its susceptibility to insect infestation, fire and disease. If the burl-removal cuts are extensive, the structural integrity of the tree can be weakened to the point where the tree could be threatened by high winds, floods or saturated ground. The canopy could suffer extensive dieback, further stressing the tree. In addition, illegal burl poaching may disturb wildlife, including threatened and endangered species such as the marbled murrelet, which nests only in coastal, old-growth coniferous forests of the Pacific Northwest.

To help thwart the burl poachers, park rangers in Redwood National and State Parks have closed and gated a popular parkway from sunset to sunrise; and the Center for Biological Diversity, the Redwood Parks Association and Save the Redwoods League are offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the prosecution of poachers. But in a depressed local economy where people feel they have a right to extract from the forest to make a living, information may be hard to come by.

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The Latin name, “Sequoia sempervirens,” means “forever living.”

Parks, however, are state and national resources, which means that the trees in them belong to the people of America. When poachers take trees, they steal from all of us. On May 14, 2014, the National Park Service announced that one burl poacher had been arrested. Although those caught stealing wood from the parks may face felony charges and prison time, most recent convictions have resulted in misdemeanor fines only.

Redwood burls happen to be most prolific on the oldest trees. A burl from a 2,000-year-old coast redwood can give life to a new tree that can live for another 2,000 years, and thus the Latin name for the species: Sequoia sempervirens, which means “forever living.”

If the poaching continues, however, perhaps not.

Do you think that making burl poaching a felony would help save the last of our redwood forests? Or are other measures, such as closing the parks at night, better deterrents?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy