Book Review: “Tree Thieves,” by Lyndsie Bourgon

It was the start of a decades-long process in which federal and state governments sought to protect the forests of the communities around them. In Orick, Calif., a focal point for Bourgon, locals are prohibited from picking up redwood branches that wash up on a nearby beach — depriving people of the firewood they traditionally used to heat their homes (and causing piles of driftwood to clog groundwater drainage). Bourgon captures residents’ acute frustration with distant bureaucrats imposing what appear to be unnecessary and destructive rules.

The result was an overdone and counterproductive feedback loop. Loggers and their unions portrayed environmentalists as radicals bent on destroying decent jobs. The reality was that the loss of jobs in the logging industry had less to do with environmentalists than with the giant corporations mechanizing what were manual labor and outsourcing wood processing work to Asia.

Environmental groups like the Sierra Club have demonized loggers as maniacal tree destroyers and, at times, racist inbreds. (I didn’t notice it at the time, but Powers, in “The Overstory,” is sometimes guilty of similar stereotypes.) This, Bourgon believes, was a wasted opportunity. Like environmental activists, forest communities revered their forests – after all, once the trees were gone, so were the jobs – and there were alliances to be forged.

This is the backdrop to Bourgon’s portrayal of “tree thieves” as misunderstood pariahs. “I began to see timber poaching not just as a dramatic environmental crime, but as something deeper – an act of reclaiming one’s place in a rapidly changing world,” she writes, tracing that desire back to 16th century England, where the poachers of the royal forests were celebrated as folk heroes.

Bourgon immersed herself with a small handful of these men in the Northwest, and a picture emerges of a restless band of unlucky crooks. A number abuse drugs. The poachers recognize that what they are doing is illegal, but they call it principled, like stealing a loaf of bread to feed their family. A character scans the forest for valuable pieces of wood, surveys the locations, and when he needs money, he returns to collect his prizes. “We have bills to pay,” said another. “We’re like everyone else except we live in the middle of nowhere, there are no jobs and they don’t want to hire us to prevent wood poaching.”

On the other side are National Park Service rangers, who deploy advanced technology to pursue poachers. There are hidden cameras, hidden in the trees. There’s a radar-like gadget that allows the government to keep tabs on vulnerable trees from above. There are magnetic sensor plates – $10,000 each – on the forest floor to detect the sound of chainsaws.

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