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Tree DNA helps solve case of illegal tree harvesting: 'Another great tool ... to combat the theft of natural resources'

While animal poaching tends to get much more mainstream attention, tree poaching is also a big problem.

While animal poaching tends to get much more mainstream attention, tree poaching is also a big problem.

Photo Credit: iStock

Using DNA to solve a crime is not a new concept — but using tree DNA certainly is. The United States Department of Agriculture's Forest Service just used tree DNA to solve a federal timber poaching case, KRCG reported. It was the first time that the technology was used in that way.

The Forest Service was investigating the poaching of black walnut trees in Mark Twain National Forest, located in southern Missouri. Black walnut, a high-quality dark hardwood, is considered a "premium domestic hardwood" and commands high prices, according to The Wood Database, making it attractive to lumber poachers.

The poaching in Mark Twain National Forest was first spotted in 2019. A Forest Service special agent then found the likely culprit while investigating a local lumber mill and finding a log with identical dimensions to a freshly cut stump in the forest.

But to be sure, the special agent contacted Richard Cronn, a USDA Forest Service research geneticist, to match the log to the stump using DNA.

"Coincidentally, our lab was developing a DNA test to identify individual black walnut trees at the Forest Service's Hardwood Tree Improvement and Regeneration Center," Cronn said. "There's an enormous interest in selectively breeding black walnuts to improve growth characteristics of the tree. Because of this project, we were able to quickly meet this request."

While the DNA technology was not initially developed to solve tree crimes, the Forest Service was excited about the implications.

"Timber theft investigation is a priority for Forest Service Law Enforcement and Investigations on the Mark Twain National Forest, and I'm excited because using DNA evidence gives us another great tool in our toolbox to combat the theft of natural resources from public lands," said Mark Twain National Forest patrol captain Casey Hutsell.

While animal poaching tends to get much more mainstream attention, tree poaching — or illegally removing any type of protected plants or wildlife — is also a big problem. In Australia, one property owner was recently issued a large fine for bulldozing a mile of national parkland to create a path to his property.

Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont also recently came under fire for hiring a landscaper to clear out 180 trees and thousands of bushes near his home. A neighbor and a neighborhood organization were also involved. 

In the case of the walnut trees, the individual culprit was eventually tracked down and pleaded guilty to one felony count of depredation of government property. He was sentenced to five months time served, three years of supervised parole, and restitution for the timber's value and damage to the forest.

The successful use of DNA analysis in the fight against timber theft is a heartening display of how scientific breakthroughs contribute to the protection of our planet. 

In addition to providing shelter for wildlife, plants in our parks and forests soak up heat-trapping gases linked to destructive and devastating extreme weather events. Supporting programs and initiatives that protect our resources can contribute to a brighter future for all. 

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