The Opioid Crisis Is Killing Trees Too

Minutes after Luke Clarke turned his white patrol truck off the highway and onto the Forest Service road, we came upon a spot that, to most people, would be unremarkable: The blur of greens and browns along the roadside looked like any other patch of forest detritus on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island.

But Clarke looked closer.

Green fir boughs, bright under the morning sky, were strewn across the highway. Sawdust had been crushed into the ridges of a roadside snowbank, leaving an ocher stain. Clarke, a provincial natural-resources officer, stopped his truck, got out, and tromped up and over the snowbank into the forest, followed by his supervisor, Denise Blid.

Hidden behind a row of trees lay the scene Clarke and Blid had expected: a small clearing punctuated by a single large stump. The stump, nearly three feet across, had, until very recently, been the foundation of an old-growth coastal Douglas fir, a tree that Clarke calculated had stood more than 120 feet tall. Sometime during the previous few days, the tree had been illegally felled, and the wide end of its trunk abandoned. This was unusual—poachers usually take the “butt end” of a tree first, since it has the most wood—and Clarke speculated that the culprits would soon be back to pick it up. He photographed the trunk like a crime scene, measuring its dimensions and using an iPad to enter them into a database. He then followed a deep groove in the snow to the spot where the narrow end of the trunk had likely been cut into pieces for easier transport. The only remaining clue was a set of vertical cuts in the snow, left by the poachers’ chain saws.

“Literally, this is what we’re finding every day,” said Blid.

“I’m sure it’s the same people I caught the other night too,” said Clarke. Trees are often poached from this area, and he surmised that the group he had stopped to question earlier in the week had been scouting for stands of promising trees.

“Man,” Clarke said a few minutes later. “I just wish I could pull an all-nighter out here.”

Almost as soon as white settlers arrived on Vancouver Island, the fate of the island’s forests was hinged to the whims of westward expansion—and the widespread desire for old-growth timber. The small town of Nanaimo, where Clarke and Blid are based, saw its first sawmill built in 1854. Throughout the late 19th century, sawmills proliferated on the southern end of the island, their owners drawn by the monumental trees and the convenience of nearby ocean transport. In 1865, after nearly three decades of unfettered logging, what is now the provincial government began managing access to the province’s timber. Today, the province manages its forests through a series of tenures granted to logging companies, communities, and individuals for purposes ranging from tourism to mining to agriculture.

Despite its long history of logging, British Columbia’s provincial forests are still rich with coastal Douglas fir, big-leaf maple, and groves of old-growth cedar. Over time, residents and environmental activists have persuaded the province to limit logging in many areas close to cities and towns. But official restrictions haven’t protected these places from an unprecedented rash of timber poaching.

“This blatant illegal cutting has always been around, but it is really exploding,” Clarke says while guiding his truck through the island’s back roads. “Lately, I’ve just been run off my heels with this issue … I honestly can’t keep up—there’s just so much of it.”

Natural-resource officers, or NROs, are the forests’ law-enforcement corps: Charged with preventing loss of revenue from provincial forests, they enforce laws and regulations, working in all-black uniforms that include bulletproof vests. A few years ago, rising rates of forest crime prompted the province to train its NROs in hand-to-hand combat. This year, a report suggested that they carry batons and pepper spray. (Budgetary restrictions and a lack of specific training prevent the all-night stakeouts that Clarke would like to stage.)

When Clarke, Blid, and I drove along the back roads outside Nanaimo, we found three tree-poaching sites in less than an hour, two of them previously unknown to Clarke and Blid. At each site, only one or two trees had been taken, and the stumps were hidden from the highway—unless, like Clarke, you knew what you were looking for.

“It’s like taking one cookie from a jar—no one notices,” says Corporal Pamela Vinh, one of two investigators with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Forest Crime Investigation Unit, based in British Columbia. “But a bunch in a row? It’s more noticeable.”