Prices for BC softwood lumber have soared more than 500 percent over the past year, reaching $1,600 for 1,000 board feet (which is equivalent to almost 190 8-foot 2x4s.)
That might be good news for the logging industry, but according to the BC government, it’s also causing a spike in illegal tree theft – people sneaking onto public forests to steal firs, cedars and maples.
“It’s an economic motive for sure,” said Matt Austin, a BC Forests Ministry Assistant Deputy Minister, in a report by The Canadian Press first published May 16, 2021. “These trees can be pretty valuable.”
According to Austin, though lucrative on the black market for thieves, these trees play a more important role in forest health and stewardship,
Poachers are causing environmental damage by cutting down large Douglas fir and red cedar trees near waterways. In some cases, tree thieves have left large Douglas firs to rot on the ground if they can’t remove them.
“In this case, the tree had fallen away from the road and just put it in a position where it was going to be really difficult to get it out, so they just walked away,” Austin said.
The high price of firewood may also be adding to an increase in tree theft. As early as January, municipal forester Shaun Mason started getting reports of dozens of fir trees cut down inside North Cowichan’s 5,000-hectare municipal forest.
“My suspicion is given the high price of a cord of firewood and just given the lack of availability in our general area, it is resulting in people going to these open areas and cutting trees for the purposes of firewood,” he said. “On average, I probably get three calls a week, and have for a long time, from people looking for firewood permits.”
UBC forestry expert Prof. Terry Sunderland says it looks a lot like the illegal logging he has studied in west-central Africa. Sunderland said in Africa, people believe they have customary rights to take trees from forests, while in B.C., forests are largely public, but require permits before logging.
“[In BC] it’s an outright case of illegal logging, whether it’s for firewood or lumber,” he said.
Sunderland said the high lumber prices are likely driving the thefts, but they’ve also resulted in the cutting down of other tree species beyond firs and cedar.
“There’s been instances of individual maple trees being targeted, particularly the older ones, which have obviously really nice grain and that nice hardwood finish,” he said.
According to Sutherland, since 2009, the province has received 1,135 complaints about illegal logging and issued 966 violation tickets totalling $123,700. This is just a drop in the bucket when compared to the economic value of the stolen trees.
The province has also handed out more than $1 million in administrative penalties for contraventions of authorized harvest permits, said Austin.
The penalties under the Forest and Range Practices Act for being found guilty of damaging or destroying Crown timber include fines of up to $1 million, three years in prison or both, Austin said.