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DNA Tracking Branches Out
Tree DNA is now being used to address illegal logging issues
By Douglas Page
In April, 2010, a Washington man was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for stealing several old-growth maple trees from the Hood Canal Ranger District in Washington. The high-value wood was to be used in musical instruments. A sawmill worker suspected the wood had been harvested on National Forest land and not on private land, as stated in a forged permit.
Cases like this may benefit from a new technology emerging from Australia’s University of Adelaide that uses advances in DNA ‘fingerprinting’ of trees to make it harder for timber thieves to succeed. The DNA technique can be used to trace individual logs or wood products back to the forests of their origin.
“DNA fingerprinting allows individual trees to be uniquely identified genetically and is useful for following particular logs or large timber products along a supply chain where documents can be falsified,” says Andrew Lowe, director of the Australian Centre for Evolutionary Biology and Biodiversity. Lowe says it is now possible to extract and use genetic material from wood products and samples of old wood.
“We can use DNA to identify tree species and DNA to identify and track individual logs or wood products, and we can verify the geographic region the wood came from,” Lowe says. “We will never be able to get DNA out of paper products but we are able to routinely get DNA out of wood products like decking.”
Lowe said large-scale screening of wood DNA can now be done cheaply, routinely, quickly, and with a statistical certainty that can be used in court. The DNA method can be applied at ports of entry to address the import/export of timber obtained through illicit means. Lowe estimates 10 percent of wood imported into Australia consists of illegally traded timber, harvested outside designated logging areas or environmental controls.
Commonly used checks (such as chain-of-custody certification) in place in the field to monitor the flow of legal as well as illegal timber are vulnerable to falsification, particularly between logging concession and mill, where most illegally logged timber is inserted into the supply chain.
“Certification documents can be falsified, DNA cannot,” Lowe says.
Lowe says DNA fingerprinting can be used by suppliers to check supply chain integrity or by importers to check species or region of origin. With the Lowe technique, DNA is extracted from logs sampled at logging concessions, and a unique genetic fingerprint is generated using 14 DNA segments, called microsatellite markers.
The first company to commercialize the DNA technology is a Singapore firm called DoubleHelix Tracking Technologies, which has marketed a DNA fingerprinting system to check the integrity of timber supply chains since 2007. Lowe is chief scientist for DoubleHelix.
DoubleHelix spokesperson Jonathan Geach says they can extract DNA from kiln-dried timber products like tables and chairs and match this back to samples taken earlier in the supply chain or from pre-existing genetic maps.
“We have extracted DNA from a 500-year-old shipwreck,” Geach says.
The scope of the timber theft problem ranges from nuisance to malevolence on an international organized-crime scale. In July, the Vietnamese military was implicated in a multi-million dollar timber operation that smuggles threatened timber over the border from the shrinking forests of neighboring Laos.
Some estimates suggest that illegal timber may account for one-tenth of the global timber trade, worth maybe $150 billion a year. One conservation group believes more than half of all logging activities in vulnerable regions, like the Amazon Basin, Central Africa, Southeast Asia, and parts of Russia, are illegal.
In the U.S., the Forest Service estimates one of every ten trees harvested in national forests is taken illegally. According to a 2008 Congressional Research Service Report, private companies claim three percent of their trees are stolen, amounting to losses of $350 million annually.
Timber theft in the Northwest seems to be mostly of the nuisance variety, but as the Hood Canal incident illustrates, it does exist. Quick profit is the incentive. Old growth timber, most popular among thieves, can net a $5,000 profit from a single tree.
“Timber theft is as much a crime as any other theft,” says Lauren Fins, of the department of Forest Ecology & Biogeosciences at the University of Idaho. “If using DNA identification helps to reduce or stop the stealing, it seems a worthy technique to use.”
Fins says if timber companies or government agencies routinely identify their stands genetically, especially old growth hardwoods that are vulnerable to theft, it is less likely wood will be stolen and if it is, more likely the perpetrators will be caught.
“If multiple genetic markers are used, the probability of misidentifying logs or wood would be very low,” she says. “For species that are highly genetically variable, it might even be possible to pinpoint the exact population sources of the wood. Genetic markers would be pretty damning evidence for anyone caught with the logs and the products.”
One forensic method the Forest Service currently uses is to mark the boles and stumps of trees to be harvested with paint containing unique chemical tracers whose formulation is a closely guarded secret, according to Dennis Dykstra, a retired Forest Service scientist.
“Laboratory identification of the tracers is highly reliable and has been used in court as proof of illegally harvested trees,” Dykstra says.
Jeff Stringer, of the Department of Forestry at the University of Kentucky, says the use of DNA would improve the ability to successfully prosecute timber theft, since local law enforcement generally does not have tools or resources necessary to track timber movement from stump to processor.
“The use of DNA sample collection from the stump and then subsequently from logs on a deck, satellite yard, or primary processor yard would aid in this,” says Stringer.
Shelley Gardner, a U.S. Forest Service policy analyst, sees the DNA technique being useful not just for government enforcement but also for regulatory compliance in the private and public sectors. Gardner said when wood is seized (such as happened in August when during an investigation federal agents confiscated imported hardwood from the Gibson Guitar company in Nashville) and there is a question as to which species it is, the wood would first go to Forest Service wood anatomists.
“But in cases where it’s important to know the wood’s country of origin, in theory DNA could complement the wood anatomy method,” Gardner says.
Out of the Woods
In 2007, Australian companies became the first in the world to purchase wood products that use timber DNA fingerprinting as part of proof of legal origin.
DoubleHelix is well established in Asia and will soon expand to the Congo Basin. There is also growing interest in the U.S. in stopping illegal logging. The 2008 farm bill (P.L. 110-234) amended the 1900 Lacey Act to make it unlawful to import plants harvested or taken illegally in areas outside the U.S. This was primarily intended to deter imports of illegally obtained timber from foreign countries.
One of the problems is timber is moved around the globe, making it difficult and expensive to identify foreign species properly.
“Falsification of documents certifying origin is rampant,” Lowe says. Lowe believes a precise DNA reference standard that crosses political and geographic boundaries would help manage and identify valuable forest assets.
He adds, “DNA has the potential to provide a universal standard to identify all specimens of a timber species no matter how far the timber is carried.”