Sunday, October 29, 2023

Orick: the gatekeeper and poacher of the redwoods

Every year, expensive cuts of redwood are used to make trinkets, furniture, luxury car consoles, and other goods. A significant portion of this costly timber used to make these items is poached from the Redwood National and State Parks in California. Much of it comes from in and around a town named Orick

Orick sits at the base of the Redwood National Park in Humboldt County, California. Once a place with a booming timber industry, it now has a high poverty rate, widespread drug use, and a dwindling population. Once home to 3,000 people, its population is now estimated to be just 300

Orick's undiversified economy is surprisingly supported by a lucrative underground tree poaching economy. Many Orick residents have turned to illegally harvesting redwood burls from their neighboring protected lands. Burls are the bumpy growths on redwood trees that form following trauma such as lightning, fire, and fungal infections. When injured, redwoods direct their nutrients and energy into healing this trauma, which results in the burls. The burls thus contain a lot of genetic material, making it likely for a tree to sprout from the rough bump. Cutting a burl does irreparable harm, weakening the foundation of the tree and making it susceptible to disease. More consequentially, it lessens the chance for the tree to reproduce

Tree poaching in Orick used to involve only dead redwood logs. The regular theft of redwoods began only about fifteen years ago. In 2006, the San Francisco Chronicle reported on authorities' concerns that poachers would begin chopping down live trees as the number of dead logs decreased, and this is exactly what happened. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that one in ten trees cut in national forests is poached, and the Redwood Park rangers are calling the poaching a "crisis." Investigators have discovered chunks of illegal burlwood along the 101 Highway from Eureka to Crescent City. 

Poachers are primarily motivated by money. These chunks of wavy burl hold significant financial value and a single slab of redwood can fetch a couple thousands of dollars. Poachers can easily drop their fresh loots off to local buyers in the area who then use the wood to make an array of luxury items. Burls are smoother and easier to carve making them ideal for sculptures and furniture. 

Poachers often work in teams and sneak into the park during the middle of the night. To lessen their chances of being caught, rainier weather is preferred during these operations. Poachers use chainsaws to cut into the trees and then haul away large chunks of redwood. From time to time, poachers are caught and charged. They are often fined, banned from the park, and ordered to complete community service (Read about one Orick poacher's sentence here.) These sentences, however, are sometimes not enough to stop poachers from coming back

With few economic prospects left in Orick, burl poaching has been a quick way for residents to make money. Orick had reached its peak as a logging town after World War II. During that time Orick had four sawmills, unionized timber jobs, and was a bustling town with bars, restaurants, and shops. This was also the period when many redwoods were logged––two million acres of coastal redwood were diminished to 300,000 acres. By the 1960s, the environmental impact of the logging industry was clear. In an effort to protect the remaining redwoods, environmentalists pushed for action, and in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed a bill creating the Redwood National Park. 

Timber companies blamed environmentalists for their downfall and the effects of deindustrialization that ensued. Officials told the town that while the timber industry was collapsing, tourism to the area would boom. But this did not happen. Lyndsie Bourgon, author of Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America's Woods, told NPR:

Orick finds itself ensnared in a vicious circle: its reputation for drugs and unsightly poverty deters anyone who might want to invest in making it a permanent home or a place where tourists might want to stay.

In her book, Bourgon argues that tree poaching is the product of desperation: people with a deep-rooted attachment to Orick are left with limited options. One poacher likened himself to Robin Hood, telling Bourgon, "Robin Hood was just taking care of his and his own." 

Read more about Orick here and timber poaching in California's national parks here

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