A drawing of a man shining a flashlight on tree stumps
Zoë van Dijk

The Opioid Crisis Is Killing Trees Too

In the coastal rain forests of British Columbia, stolen timber is traded for a quick fix.

Updated on June 5 at 12:57 p.m.

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.”

Over the past five years, the NROs in British Columbia have reported 2,300 forest crimes, mostly along the north and west coasts, with the most common being timber theft, illegal harvesting, and arson. Only half of these cases were investigated, and only 140 have made it to the courts. Last year, just over 70 timber-harvest “tickets,” or fines, were issued, ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.

Poaching incidents are rarely investigated because by the time a site is discovered, the poachers are usually long gone. Finding the perpetrators is often a matter of serendipity, and discovery doesn’t always lead to consequences: Earlier this spring, Clarke was sitting in his truck along the side of the road when two trucks hauling timber barreled past at more than 80 miles per hour. “Obviously, not even the police would follow someone in that situation. So we basically had to let them go,” said Clarke. The next day, he stopped a man carrying a load of Douglas fir, a species that can’t be cut from the area without a permit. Clarke believed the man was one of the truck drivers, but a poaching charge would have required him to physically match the wood with the stump it came from. Without hard evidence, or a previous record, Clarke’s only option was to seize the firewood and write a violation ticket—essentially a warning.

Timber poaching is tightly tied to the price of timber products. During a spike in thefts throughout the Pacific Northwest and California last year, timber prices were running hot for several North American species, including Douglas fir. Record-high prices, more than $860 per thousand board feet—143 two-by-fours, or two “cords” of wood—were reached in February 2018. Prices have cooled somewhat since, but the supply of good-quality, old-growth trees continues to tighten throughout the North American West and beyond, and consumer demand for their rugged aesthetic persists.

“You go to almost any bar in Vancouver, they have that maple, live-edge board table,” says Clarke. “It’s such a common thing. Where is it coming from? Some of it’s legitimate, some of it’s not.”

Clarke and the RCMP routinely check paperwork and logbooks at the region’s mills, so most are careful to avoid buying “hot wood.” But some mills and furniture manufacturers, tempted by the lower prices of poached timber, take the risk—creating a small but steady market for poachers.

For many of the poachers on Vancouver Island, however, market demand is only part of the motivation. More and more, timber poaching looks like a quick and relatively easy way for poachers to satisfy some desperate demands of their own.

When John McCormick first moved to Nanaimo, more than 20 years ago, he got lost on the way to a meeting and was told to “turn right at the Hells Angels’ headquarters.” The city, along the northeast shore of Vancouver Island, was founded as a mining town, and emerged as a logging city with a pulp-and-paper mill in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “It was that kind of rough-and-tumble town,” he says. McCormick is the executive director of the Nanaimo branch of the John Howard Society, a Canadian nonprofit that advocates for poor and otherwise vulnerable people who have come into conflict with the law. Many of the society’s Nanaimo clients have struggled to adapt as second-home owners and telecommuters have moved to the city from the mainland, driving up property values. “Look around and it looks like it’s developing, but people can’t afford to live here,” McCormick says. “It’s a challenging kind of place.”

British Columbia, like much of the Pacific Northwest region, is facing the intertwined crises of homelessness and opioid addiction. Last year, Nanaimo was home to the largest tent city in Canada (dubbed “DisconTent City” by its estimated 300 residents), and its per capita homelessness rate is among the highest in the province. The tent city created a crisis of identity in Nanaimo—a town usually best known as the namesake of a dessert bar sold at Christmas bake sales—and citizens flooded radio shows and newspaper comments sections with complaints. While many residents would like to believe that the homeless are outsiders, a November 2018 presentation from the provincial agency BC Housing indicated that the majority of people in the tent city had lived in Nanaimo for years.

In British Columbia, opioid-related deaths began to spike in 2015, and in 2018, 1,489 people in the province died of suspected drug overdoses. In 2017 and 2018, 89 people died of overdoses in Nanaimo alone. (Data from the province indicate that the drug fentanyl was detected in about 85 percent of these deaths.) The vast majority of the fatalities are men ages 30 to 59—the same demographic hit by the downturn in the province’s natural-resource economy.

Clarke grew up near the town of Whistler, British Columbia, now famous for its ski resort.* But in the early days of the 20th century, Whistler was a logging and mining town, with four mills running at its peak. Though the town’s official website barely mentions its industrial past, Clarke watched Whistler make the final transition from natural resources to tourism in the 1980s. He sees the parallels now, on Vancouver Island and in Nanaimo in particular.

“When I think about what’s drawing people to live in rural communities in British Columbia now that our natural-resource economy is shifting, there are less forestry jobs, less forest-manufacturing jobs,” says Clarke. “What’s drawing people to these towns, and revitalizing them, is recreation.”

Clarke, who has worked in Nanaimo for close to a decade, is well aware of the desperation that drives many to poach timber. Next door to the Natural Resources Department offices where Clarke works is a brand-new housing facility, built to accommodate some of the residents of DisconTent City. Not long ago, in the department’s parking lot, Clarke encountered a man he’d previously charged with timber theft; it turned out that he was living in the nearby facility.** “He’s pretty hard up, and is honest and transparent with me when I ask him questions,” Clarke says. “He says you make money just selling firewood.”

Zoë van Dijk

While it’s possible to make upwards of $800 selling 1,000 board feet of Douglas fir to mills or manufacturers, poached wood most often makes it into the system as firewood, sold for as little as a couple of hundred dollars per truck-bed-ful. Many poachers use tools such as Facebook Marketplace and Kijiji to advertise loads of split fir firewood, for instance—this wood can be off-loaded quickly, so the risk of being caught is low. When Clarke and Blid took me on their fieldwork, it was the end of winter—desperate times if you’re one of the many families in the area that rely on a woodstove for heat and you’ve underestimated your needs.

Timber poaching in much of British Columbia is driven by incontrovertible human needs—the need for shelter, food, and, in some cases, the next hit of the painkiller that has taken hold of one’s brain. “I don’t think [poaching] is going to slow down if timber value goes down,” says Clarke. “Those greater socioeconomic issues—those aren’t going away anytime soon, and with that, I don’t think the timber theft is going away.”

The ties between poaching and human needs are tightening, says Clarke, as people without housing resort to camping on provincial land for months at a time. One of the poaching sites that we visited, outside Nanaimo and close to the highway, was near a well-established squatters’ camp, complete with roads and excavated walkways. The large trees nearby, said Clarke, were regularly felled and sold.

Just outside the camp, a handful of single trees stood widely spaced, old growth that had been selectively kept standing to ensure that more grow there in the future. “They’re sitting ducks,” says Clarke. “Trees like that are legacy trees. Through them, our children are going to have an idea of what the forest used to look like.”

In the cab of Clarke’s truck, on our way back into town, we talked about who’s been moving to the island—retirees, people who can work remotely, people involved in the tech and creative industries. People come here not so much for mill jobs or convenient harbors, but for the promise of a forest in the backyard, of hiking trails a five-minute drive from the city.

The value of a place like Nanaimo has changed, and the value of its trees has changed too—but the mechanisms by which we protect them have not.

“Tree theft is treated more like an economic crime or issue and not an environmental crime or offense, and that is the base of the problem,” says Linda Nowlan, a lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law.

Forest crimes such as timber poaching are punishable by fine under the province’s Forest and Range Practices Act, and while those fines can, in theory, reach up to $1 million, three-quarters of the fines handed out from 2007 to 2013 were for less than $5,000. The maximum amount has never been imposed. “It’s sort of shocking to me how low these penalties are, because they’re not providing the deterrence they should,” says Nowlan. “The severity [of the crime] and how we value it in society just hasn’t penetrated to decision makers.”

Recently, Clarke and Blid have been quietly working with federal and provincial lawyers to alter the ways in which timber-theft cases are valued and thus prosecuted. Both Clarke and Blid are convinced that timber-poaching enforcement would be more effective if financial penalties were based less on market value than on ecological and social value, and Clarke is encouraging prosecutors to ask for higher penalties based on these values.

It’s new territory for both the resource officers and the lawyers who act as prosecutors for crimes on provincial land. And the process is slow—so far, the two parties have had only preliminary meetings and talked with biologists who might be able to testify to the trees’ ecological value.

Clarke hopes that the province’s lawyers will be able to establish a precedent for including ecological value in poaching penalties. But the practical difficulties of identifying and catching poachers remain, and resources for enforcement are scarce—in part because of the same undervaluing of the resource that keeps fines low. It’s difficult to justify a costly prosecution when the stolen tree might have been sold as firewood for $300.

The environmental prosecutor for the province, John Blackman, declined to comment, but Clarke and Blid are proud of the inroads they’ve been able to make on the legal front. When we identify a crime against the forest as more than a simple property theft, our conceptions of worth are deepened, they say. “What’s the gravity and magnitude of this compared to poaching a deer?” asks Clarke. “These trees are way more significant than a deer-poaching [case]. It doesn’t get the same kind of attention.”

The environmental costs of timber theft can be counted in the towering body of the tree itself. Much of the timber theft on the island occurs in the coastal Douglas-fir zone and ecosystem, considered one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America—only about 0.5 percent of it is currently intact. Endangered species live in these trees, even those that are “dead standing,” or still vertical but no longer alive. Other species rely on the trees’ foliage and fruits, or on the nutrients that their decomposing wood returns to the ecosystem.

What’s interesting, says Jens Wieting, a forest campaigner with the Sierra Club in British Columbia, is that acknowledging ecological values alongside market rates could also show how continued, legal forestry on Vancouver Island is harming the environment as well. “The underlying issue is how society appreciates the value of ancient trees, which affects the ability to assess illegal effects as well as legal. It cuts both ways,” he says. In this regard, he’s skeptical of the ability of any government employee to effect change—including Clarke.

In their effort to keep more trees standing, natural-resource officers such as Clarke and Blid work with a dizzying number of entities: city police, the RCMP, traffic officers, and the private security firms that work for the two largest private timber companies on the island, TimberWest and Island Timberlands (both companies refused to comment on the rate of poaching on their land, but a TimberWest representative said last summer that the company was struggling with challenges of “unauthorized access.”) They also work with land and watershed managers and NGOs, and have begun to partner with local indigenous groups to record and report instances of environmental crime on reserve lands.

So spending time with someone like Clarke can mean swimming in a sea of acronyms: which organizations are taking on cases at which times, who stopped whom on the highway with a truckload of wood, which level of law enforcement has logged the crime into its database (databases are not shared, and none is specifically developed for environmental crimes). “It’s a mosaic,” says Vinh. “It takes a while to learn the nuances.”

Clarke and his colleagues are contending with a nearly unsolvable crime, and they’re doing so in the shadow of provincial government budget cuts. Currently, the ministry is understaffed in natural-resource officers, with only 112 throughout the entire province. A report released by the Sierra Club and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives says there is a “crisis of confidence” among natural-resource officers.

While Clarke and Blid press for changes in legal strategy, they must continue to work with the few tools they have. During the past couple of months, they’ve placed new signs on poles that dot provincial lands, directing anyone who suspects or has witnessed illegal logging to call the department with a report. The signs have brought in a few more calls, but many passerby may not see them—Clarke and Blid have had to place them high on the poles, well above eye level, to protect them from vandalism.***

* This post originally misstated Luke Clarke’s hometown.

** This post originally misstated the details of a previous criminal encounter.

*** This post previously mischaracterized the volume of new calls to the tip line.