A team of 150 scientists is volunteering their time to map the DNA of maple leaves found along the Pacific Coast. The researchers want to create a genetic map of maple trees to identify illegally harvested wood.
Wood patterns are unique for each type of tree, especially the highly sought bigleaf maple (aka the broadleaf maple). They're commonly used in fine furniture and musicians' instruments.
Anya Tyson works with the conservation group Adventure Scientists to track down these large and important trees.
"It is mostly occurring in Oregon, Washington, and coastal B.C... We are seeing beautiful old-growth trees taken from some of our most beloved public spaces," said Tyson. Tyson noted that the tree harvesting even takes place in seemingly protected spaces such as Washington state's Olympic National Park and other state parks.
Tyson said there is a unique difficulty in telling if a piece of wood has been poached. While most people are familiar with pelt and ivory poaching, far fewer understand just how much lumber is illegally sourced each year. Currently, roughly 30 percent of the world's traded timber is believed to be illegally sourced.
"Unlike elephant tusks or tiger pelts, when you just look at a piece of wood there's no way to tell if it was legally or illegally harvested," said Tyson.
In order to get an expansive look at harvesting patterns -- both legal and illegal -- the Adventure Scientist team is mapping the genetics of bigleaf maple trees spanning from Mexico all the way to Vancouver Island. The volunteers collect both leaf samples and tree cores from the maples they find during the tracking.
“The goal with this is that we have enough samples distributed widely enough across this geographic range that we can say we’re pretty sure that this was sample from a national forest in Washington,” said Meaghan Parker-Forney, a science officer at the nonprofit World Resources Institute’s Forest Legality Initiative, one of several partners on the project. “If somebody’s claiming it came from Northern California, we can say no, that’s actually not true.”
Jakub Berdnarek is a biologist who lives near Leavenworth, Washington. He serves as one of the researchers volunteering this summer. Berdnarek noted in an interview that most of the researchers already want to be out hiking and exploring the outdoors.
“Since there are already a lot of people going out into these areas for recreation, why not contribute to this larger project?” said Bednarek.
The Adventure Scientists team will hand the data over to the national forest service for their usage. If they suspect a batch of wood has been illegally harvested, samples can be sent to the massive reference library. The team wants to make this process as public as possible. By telling more people this process exists and is being used, the team hopes to deter tree poaching.
“I do think that there’s definitely an element of Big Brother is watching,” said Parker-Forney. “I think you start to illustrate that you can do this type of work and that these guys are going to get busted, and I think there’s a lot more fear involved on their side. I feel like that’s a potential behavioral change when they know that this type of technology is out there. Hopefully, this deters them from going farther, knowing that something as solid as DNA evidence can convict you.”