Tree DNA was used as evidence for the first time in a United States federal criminal trial.

The lead defendant in a scheme to steal Bigleaf Maple timber was convicted July 8, 2021, in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, Washington following a 6-day jury trial.

…a Research Geneticist for the USDA Forest Service, testified that the wood the defendant sold was a genetic match to the remains of three poached Maple trees investigators had discovered in the Elk Lake area. 

Timber poaching in Olympic National Forest

According to records filed in the case, between April and August 2018, the man conducted an “illegal logging” operation in the Elk Lake area of the Olympic National Forest, near Hood Canal.

Approximate location of timber theft. Source: Timber Risk Map

Another defendant joined the man, helping remove the Maple timber from the National Forest and transporting it to a mill in Tumwater, Washington.

See: Man sentenced to 30 months on charges related to the timber theft of Bigleaf Maple

The type of Maple harvested by the defendants, Bigleaf Maple, is highly prized and used to produce musical instruments.

The scheme resulted in the massive 2018 Maple Fire on the Olympic Peninsula.

The Maple Fire

On August 3, 2018, the group decided to cut a maple tree that contained a wasp’s nest near the base of the tree.

To remove the nest, the group sprayed insecticide and gasoline on the nest and base of the tree and then lit the nest on fire. The group failed to extinguish the fire, which developed into a wildfire later named the “Maple Fire.”

The Maple Fire consumed more than 3,300 acres between August and November 2018 and cost approximately $4.2 million to contain.

The Olympic Peninsula Maple fire that was started by a timber theft convicted with the use of Tree DNA.
The Maple Fire on the Olympic Peninsula. Photo: Maple Fire 2018 FB Page

“That theft, coupled with the sheer destruction of the forest fire that resulted from this activity, warrants federal criminal prosecution,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Gorman.

Tree DNA evidence

This was the first use of tree DNA evidence in a federal criminal trial. 

The defendant claimed the wood he sold to a Tumwater mill had been harvested from private property with a valid permit. However, at trial, Richard Cronn, Phd., a Research Geneticist for the USDA Forest Service, testified that the wood the defendant sold was a genetic match to the remains of three poached Maple trees investigators had discovered in the Elk Lake area. 

The DNA analysis was so precise that it found the probability of the match being coincidental was approximately one in one undecillion (one followed by 36 zeroes).

Based on this evidence, the jury concluded that the wood the defendant sold to the mill had been stolen.

Get new posts about tree DNA and other TimberCheck™ content:

For news on the latest legal risk-events in wood product supply chains subscribe to the Timber Risk Report™. Get customized location-based alerts when you join TimberCheck™. Want to know where in the forest a wood product originated? Start a WoodFlow™