An Eastern Black Walnut tree DNA collection effort begins July 2021 in the United States. The crowdsourced effort includes hikers, bikers, and birders that volunteer to collect samples of Black Walnut trees in forests on public lands.

Those samples will become the basis of chemical and DNA databases that law enforcement can use to prosecute timber thieves.

Adventure Scientists®

See: Tree DNA used in timber theft conviction a first for the U.S.

Timber tracking project: Eastern Black Walnut tree DNA

To create a chemical and DNA database for Eastern Black Walnut (Juglans nigra), the timber tracking project conducted by Adventure Scientists is recruiting volunteers to collect samples from at least 10 trees that are at least 100 meters apart. To be qualified to volunteer, you only need a smartphone and experience in the outdoors (hiking, biking, bird-watching, etc.).

Volunteers receive virtual training on how to identify Juglans nigra. Data collection includes taking samples of leaves, twigs, and in some cases, tree cores. Data (presumably GPS) is also recorded using a smartphone app. Volunteers receive equipment prior to data collection. They are expected to return the equipment, along with the tree samples, when data collection is finished.

Eastern Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) species range and public forests (green). Source: Adventure Scientists

Eastern Black Walnut and timber theft

Timber theft, and other types of illegal logging, are vastly underreported in the United States. Because of this, it occurs more frequently than most people realize. For example, a pilot study estimated that 120 incidents of timber theft occur annually in just a 20 county area along Virginia’s southwest border.

Trees such as Black Walnut and White Oak are common targets of timber theft as the timber is highly valued. Here are a few examples of recent cases of alleged Eastern Black Walnut timber theft:

Tree DNA can be used to prove where timber originated, and thus help in the prosecution of timber thieves. This was the case of the Bigleaf Maple timber that was stolen from Olympic National Forest and sold to a sawmill in Tumwater, Washington.

Tracking timber, from the stump through supply chains, will increasingly occur using tree DNA and other data. (See: What is stable isotope ratio analysis (SIRA) and how does it apply to verification of timber origin?)

For this to happen, tree DNA databases need to be built. Outsourcing data collection to a “crowd” of hikers, bikers, and birders could make it happen quickly, affordably, and at scale.

Since 2018, Adventure Scientists have already collected data in the western United States on Western Red Cedar, Coast Redwood, Alaska Yellow Cedar, and Bigleaf Maple.

Map of tree data sampling since 2018: Source: Adventure Scientists

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