Everywhere Radio: Lyndsie Bourgon | Season 3, Episode 1
Watch our full interview with Lyndsie Bourgon on the Rural Assembly YouTube channel.

Around 10 years ago, Lyndsie Bourgon, author of “Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods,” became interested in how tree poaching affects forests like the one in her front yard. On the latest episode of Everywhere Radio, Whitney Kimball Coe talked with Bourgon about how her research and interviews led her to stories about our human quest for dignity and identity in the face of displacement and poverty.

Lyndsie Bourgon is a writer, researcher, oral historian, and 2018 National Geographic Explorer. She writes about the environment and its entanglement with history, culture and identity, and her features have been published in The Atlantic, Smithsonian Magazine, The Guardian, The Oxford American, Aeon, The Walrus, Hazlitt, and elsewhere. Her first book, “Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods,” came out in June 2022.

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Check out the episode excerpts below for highlights of the conversation, and continue on to the full transcript if you’d like to read it all.

Interview Highlights

Whitney Kimball Coe:

So much of your book is exploring that question about who steals a tree and why, and their relationship to the land, to their identity, and the community. And I think that’s what makes the book really unique. This isn’t just a true crime story or trying to uncover who did it. But as you said, exploring the why. And I wonder if you could speak a little bit to those complexities which I know is big. That’s big. It’s a whole book.

Lyndsie Bourgon:

When I was doing interviews with [Natural Resources Officers] and park rangers and what have you and asking them, why is this happening here? They would say, “Well, all of these towns around this forest are struggling with poverty. They’re struggling with methamphetamine use. And this is a resource that is available. And often the folks that do it, they know how to use a chainsaw and they know where to take it because they understand the market.” And once I started doing interviews with poachers, I mean, they told me in their own words a very similar story, which is like, “I know how to use a chainsaw because my dad’s dad taught me.” Or in some cases they would say, “I don’t even know how I learned how. It was osmosis. I just know. And I feel comfortable with wood and I know how to sell it. And I need money.”

This was the current running through all of the interviews. I have to live. I was interviewing men who lived out of their trucks most of the time or poachers that just could not find work anywhere else. And I think sometimes there, I mean you know this because of the topics that you cover and the people you talk to, there’s this often gut reaction of why don’t you move somewhere else? Why don’t you move, get a new job. And apart from the practicalities of one poacher saying to me, “How am I supposed to get a deposit and two months rent and gas from my car to go move somewhere else and furniture and, and, and. I also love where I live. It’s where my mom lives. It’s where I grew up.” All of this. So there’s just all of these kind of knitted together, compounding reasons why someone might turn toward poaching.

And then sometimes as well — and this is, not everyone said this, but quite a few people did — there’s a certain amount of ownership over the land and over the forest itself that I was hearing about, where a poacher might express to me, “My grandfather was logging these forests before the park came in and I’m going to log them now.”

Full Transcript

Whitney Kimball Coe: 

Welcome back friends. Everywhere Radio is thrilled to be back after taking the summer off. It’s hard to believe that schools are coming back into session and fall is just around the corner. We’re looking forward to bringing you a beautiful set of new interviews with courageous and insightful world leaders, authors, entrepreneurs, and artists, new episodes drop every other Thursday. Make sure you’re subscribed to our newsletters. So you get a heads up. Our first guest comes to us by way of British Columbia and the Midwest, author Lyndsie Bourgon.


Lyndsie Bourgon is the author of a new book called Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods. The book is about timber poaching, which is a more ubiquitous practice than we might imagine. In North America alone, it’s estimated that 1 billion worth of wood is poached yearly, and that includes wood from old growth forests in our national parks. Lyndsie’s book looks at the complications and complexities of tree poaching. What are the implications of chopping down a century’s old redwood in the dead of night? The story is part true crime, part history, and it’s also an examination of how this form of deforestation intersects with some of the most pressing social issues of the 20th and 21st centuries. Tree Thieves is Lyndsie’s first book and it’s already received glowing reviews from the New York Times, Goodreads, and other popular sites and publications. You can also find Lyndsie’s work in the Atlantic, Smithsonian, the Guardian, the Oxford American, Haslet just to name a few. Lyndsie, I’m so pleased that you are here with us on Everywhere Radio. Thank you so much for saying yes.

Lyndsie Bourgon:

Oh, thank you very much for having me. It’s a real pleasure.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

And congratulations on a success of your book. It’s really…

Lyndsie Bourgon:

Thank you.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

… incredible. Yep.

Lyndsie Bourgon:

Pardon me?

Whitney Kimball Coe:

Oh, I was just going to say I devoured it in just a single sitting on this long plane ride that I was on a few weeks ago, and I was telling you earlier that my copy is full of highlights and notes in the margins.

Lyndsie Bourgon:

I’m so glad to hear that. That’s how I would love for people to interact with my writing, so.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

I wonder how has it been, your first book getting such wonderful reviews? How are you feeling about it?

Lyndsie Bourgon:

Yeah, I’ve had kind of the pleasure of… We’re at the, what we seem to think is, the tail end of Covid and I’ve been able to go out and have a few events and it’s just been so wonderful. A number of people have come up to tell me personal stories about how they’ve experienced timber poaching themselves, or how they’ve experienced some of the kind social issues that I talk about in the book. So in that sense, I am paired with the reviews. It’s just been a real relief. I just feel like I found an audience that really understands the things I was getting at when I dove into this story, so yeah.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

That’s so rewarding.

Lyndsie Bourgon:

Yeah, it is.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

So you’ve been writing about the intersection of environmentalism and identity and culture for a long time, and I wonder if you could tell us just what tree poaching is and also what drew you to that topic?

Lyndsie Bourgon:

Sure. So tree poaching is kind of what it sounds like. So it’s often one tree taken here or there usually from a conservation area or an area that’s being kind of preserved in a reserve or national forest, and that’s what makes it poaching. This was a tree that had been set aside for protection and logged usually in the middle of the night, taken down usually with chainsaw and often sold for firewood or taken to a mill kind of under the table. And the way that I started hearing about this was that an 800 year old cedar had been stolen from a provincial park in British Columbia where I live. And so that tree was an old growth. It was in a kind of an area that had had a lot of controversy around its protection. It was right in the center of this environmental movement of the mid-1990s that we called the War in the Woods.

And I am from a prairie area. And at the time that I heard about this, it was 2012 and I had just never even grown up around big trees. I grew up with just miles and miles and miles of rolling prairie and grasslands and wheat fields and I didn’t grow up with old growth. And so to me, this was very shocking that someone would do this and that someone knew how to do it. And that’s what really got this story rolling for me was being very interested in how, and then very quickly diving into the why and realizing that it was just a huge blow your mind moment.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

So you grew up in the prairie. Now you live, as you said, with plenty of trees around you and I wonder when you look out your front door in your community or your window, what is it that you see in your community?

Lyndsie Bourgon:

So the community where I live is actually a former logging community. So it was once in the middle of two mills, and then there were actually three or four kind of within driving distance even from there. And so this was logging land for decades. And when you look outside my window, now there is a community forest across the street from me. And it doesn’t have old growth in the sense that you might think of thousand year old trees, but it has really very beautiful forest land of Douglas fir and mixed stand with spruce so it’s a forested area for sure. And it’s a place where people have until very, very recently really made their lives around logging and made their lives around the mill.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

And so much of your book is exploring that question about who steals a tree and why, and their relationship to the land, to their identity and the community. And I think that’s what makes the book really unique. This isn’t just a true crime story or trying to uncover who did it. But as you said, exploring the why. And I wonder if you could speak a little bit to those complexities which I know is big. That’s big. It’s a whole book.

Lyndsie Bourgon:

When I was doing interviews with NROs and park rangers and what have you and asking them, why is this happening here? They would say, “Well, all of these towns around this forest are struggling with poverty. They’re struggling with methamphetamine use. And this is a resource that is available. And often the folks that do it, they know how to use a chainsaw and they know where to take it because they understand the market.” And once I started doing interviews with poachers, I mean, they told me in their own words a very similar story, which is like, “I know how to use a chainsaw because my dad’s dad taught me.” Or in some cases they would say, “I don’t even know how I learned how. It was osmosis. I just know. And I feel comfortable with wood and I know how to sell it. And I need money.”

This was the current running through all of the interviews. I have to live. I was interviewing men who lived out their trucks most of the time or poachers that just could not find work anywhere else. And I think sometimes there… I mean you know this because of the topics that you cover and the people you talk to. There’s this often a gut reaction of why don’t you move somewhere else? Why don’t you move get a new job. And apart from the practicalities of one poacher saying to me, “How am I supposed to get a deposit and two months rent and gas from my car to go move somewhere else and furniture and, and, and. I also love where I live. It’s where my mom lives. It’s where I grew up.” All of this. So there’s just all of these kind of knitted together, compounding reasons why someone might turn toward poaching.

And then sometimes as well… And this is not everyone said this, but quite a few people did. There’s a certain amount of ownership over the land and over the forest itself that I was hearing about, where a poacher might express to me, “My grandfather was logging these forests before the park came in and I’m going to log them now.”

Whitney Kimball Coe:

Oh man. And that just begs the question of who owns the land and who is here first and all of those things. I wonder if you can speak to the indigenous aspect of land.

Lyndsie Bourgon:

Absolutely. Well, so there is absolutely particularly in North America and in Canada stories about poaching, indigenous poaching from national park lands that I think are really compelling. And they’re telling stories of one day, this was my traditional territory that I gathered and hunted deer on. And the next day, I was told it was illegal and I continued trapping and I continued hunting. And this is a really important sort of assertion of rights and assertion of traditional practice for indigenous peoples.

And this is not on the same level as a settler family. Really, no matter how long they’ve stayed in town, feeling ownership over that town. But actually this was something that poachers actually even expressed to me, which I thought it was really enlightening to me. I think the last quote in the book is from a poacher saying, “In the end, this is Yurok land,” which is the nearest tribe. So there’s an understanding that whether land is being managed as a national park or as a forest service or private lands in general, it’s still coming from stolen land and there’s a sort of understanding of the layers of power there between the two, I think, between indigenous community and working class community and how power has displaced both.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

I wonder, what were those conversations like for you? You described your shock at… I mean, early on in this conversation, you described your shock at the idea that somebody could cut down an 800 year old tree and I imagine that could turn into also frustration or anger about that sort of thing, but then you have a conversation with a poacher and what do you learn?

Lyndsie Bourgon:

When I was approaching poachers who were just very open with me and really wanted to talk, I wanted to approach them from a level of tell me about your family’s story. That was really important to me. And tell me about your community’s story, and then we can talk about the poaching itself.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

What sort of stories emerged or what sort of themes came out of that approach?

Lyndsie Bourgon:

Yeah well, I really focused on one town in Northern California, partly because I actually, I did research in other towns as well and… Every town is different, but actually a lot of the narratives are really the same. A lot of they’re repeated themes that go through a lot of the histories of logging towns and other resource towns even. And so when I was in Orick, which is in Northern California right on the border of Redwoods National Park, I knew that it had a deep history as a dairy town, and I knew it had a deep history as a milltown and a logging town. And so I knew that I just wanted to talk to the people that had lived there longest, first of all, and I knew that I was going to speak to some poachers who had poached redwood from the national park.

But really I was hearing stories about how their grandfathers had moved to Northern California because they were timber men. In particular, there’s a family that I interviewed who… Family of 10 kids and their dad was a logger. And then all the boys became loggers and they grew up in North Carolina and they just kind of moved west as the timber provided until you get to Humboldt, you can’t go any further, and made roots in that town. And because the town’s roots were in logging and their family’s roots were in logging, it just became this intractable part of who they were and who their son Chris would end up becoming and how he identified within his family and within the community itself, so.

This is a story that could be told up and down the coast. I was reading case files of poachers, who, again, their dads were loggers, their uncles were loggers. Their town was similarly… Kind of all the boys thought they would enter logging, highly gendered in that way and this was the culture that had led to them feeling rooted in a place. And then when the late 1980s and early 1990s came and there was this kind of social phenomena in the Pacific Northwest called the Timber Wars. And when that kind of kicked up dust and of stoked lots of trouble, it left a lot of folks feeling really isolated, not only from where they grew up, but from work and their families and where they fit in. And this was really what I was hearing from in my interviews

Whitney Kimball Coe:

You mentioned this could be a similar profile to other extractive resource based economies across the country. I mean, even coal mining. You think about coal miners who have generations of hands in the mountains and a feeling, a connection and that identity to that work. So then to tell them that doesn’t belong to them or that’s not theirs anymore, or somehow disconnecting them from that identity.

Lyndsie Bourgon:

Yeah, I completely agree. And I think that there have been… One thing I tried to dig into in the book is I don’t want to argue that logging should have continued in the Pacific Northwest. We don’t have much old growth left at all. I think something like 95% of the redwoods that were once on the continent are gone. Now that is a remarkable amount of logging and caused irreparable damage. But the way that going about that logging, stopping that logging happened, it caused its own deep levels of harm that we’re still dealing with now. And poaching is the direct descendant of some of the language around that activism and how it did or did not include certain communities and certain people.

So that was a big part of what I wanted to communicate through the book, is that not so much that the poachers even felt that logging should have continued because there’s a lot of very varied opinions it within the book itself around logging and the environment. But the way that minds were kind changed or not changed came about was really enlightening to me and a little bit overwhelming, but I think important to look at now.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

Can you give us a snapshot of what a poaching might entail or what it might look like? I mean, there’s several examples of it in the book happening in the dead of night, but how would we recognize what it is or looks like?

Lyndsie Bourgon:

Most poaching takes place only maybe 10 steps from the side of a road or the side of a trail. And that’s because wood is super heavy and you need to transport it. And so if you could back your truck in somewhere or your car, or you can even park an ATV somewhere and kind of load it up and slowly take it out, that’s important. And all of the poaching sites that I’ve seen have been… They did not take me much time to get there at all, really close. Unless it is a particularly small and valuable type of wood, it will be done with a chainsaw. The case of the 800 year old cedar in BC actually was very, very close to a parking lot. So it was strategically chosen for that reason because when the tree was fell, it could be easily tipped into quite a large truck in the parking lot and transported out. Often there are chains and oil drips left behind if someone’s filled up a chainsaw again, or what have you.

And then depending on the type of wood that impacts where it’s going to go get into the market and into the system. So there’s a really big market for firewood in the Pacific Northwest. A lot of this wood goes to firewood. A lot of it is sold on marketplace on Facebook or Craigslist or on the side of the road or with signs from a property, but it could be old growth Douglas fir. Redwood burl, which is I talk a lot about Redwood burl in the book and that’s because it’s really valuable wood and it’s very beautiful.

So burls are these huge growths that come off the side of a tree. They’re often coated, the outside will be all bark, but when you cut into it, the wood is just unbroken. There are no knots. There are imperfections at all, and it’s very pliable. So it’s usually sold to a burl shop or to directly to an artisan where it can be turned into bowls or tables. Or there used to be quite a market for burl veneer inside luxury cars and burls would be sold by the weight into that market, often to exporters who would ship them to Europe, where they would be manufactured into the car. So that’s one way.

There is figured maple in Washington. There’s a really high demand for that for musical instruments and so it is often logged and milled into planks, usually sold into the mill system. There’s a number of ways that can happen. Sometimes mill owners might turn a blind eye if they know that the wood is really valuable and they can move it quick. In other cases, there are examples of poachers forging the paperwork to show that it came actually from a legal location. And then upon visit later, perhaps turns out didn’t come from there at all. So there’s a number of ways that it enters into the system.

What I find interesting about it is even Douglas fir. I say, Douglas fir goes to firewood, but there’s a huge market. It’s very trendy right now to have live edge tables or this kind of more rustic look in our homes and stuff. It’s beautiful. And I don’t fault anyone for loving that, but there’s only, if you want a real long table and quite wide, the tree has to be a certain age. So there’s consumer demand for this type of wood because it’s so beautiful. So that’s how it ends up with us.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

And I want to get back to the roots of this being kind of folk crime, which is how you describe it in the book. But first I just want to ask, how do you compare just poaching a couple of trees to the industrial logging complex that we know exists in our country as well. I mean, the ecological impact of either one of those, where do they fall on the spectrum?

Lyndsie Bourgon:

Large scale deforestation, and also forest management that treats forests like a crop essentially, it has a huge environmental impact, and that is… It shouldn’t be compared to what it means for someone to take down an old growth tree. But there is an impact of taking down that old growth and it’s environmental and it’s social as well. So the old growth that we have left, it is an incomparable habitat for endangered species in Washington and Oregon. The Northern spotted owl only lives in old growth, only lives in certain stands of old growth. They are very picky animals. And so to preserve the ripple effects of these other species, we need to keep those trees around, even if there’s only one or two. So the number quality far outweighs the quantity.

In that regard, they stabilize the forest floor. They provide habitat for fungi and all of these kind of important lichens and stuff like that to grow on and they are carbon sinks. So as we continue to just blow past any targets we have for decarbonization or all of that, the old growth actually absorbs way more carbon than second growth forest can and they’re invaluable in that regard. So we need to keep as much of them as possible. And they also provide, and this is difficult to quantify, but they provide us with recreation space because they are most often in protected and managed areas like parks, national forests, what have you. And they contribute to culture in that way and they contribute to indigenous cultures and all of these social elements that need preservation, I suppose, require.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

I’m absolutely with you. And I don’t mean about the trees either and actually…

Lyndsie Bourgon:

No, it’s just… Sorry, it is a really interesting question. And I think the way that I’ve kind of seen this in my head is that as we continue to log and have these kind of clear-cut scale logging, like legal logging processes happen, the way that I’ve seen that tied to the poaching is actually that in order to stop that effectively, we need to see how in the past, when we didn’t do it so well. It led to the poaching of these old growth now. Because at one point the kind of clear-cut logging of all of this old growth in the Pacific Northwest, it was a massive problem and it needed to be stopped, but because it was stopped in a way that wasn’t inclusive and in a way that didn’t take into effect the loggers, it’s still happening just on a different scale.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

Well, I could talk to you about this for a long time, but I’m going to encourage everyone to go out and get their own copy of Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods. And before I let you go, I wanted to ask you, because I ask all my guests, what are you reading right now, or watching or listening to you that’s inspiring you or challenging you or that you want to share?

Lyndsie Bourgon:

Okay. So I’m really hoping that PBS brings this over. So I was recently in the UK and there’s a new show on the BBC there called Sherwood. And I’ve just been obsessed with this show, partly because I think it did successfully what we’re talking about here. So this was essentially a murder mystery show, but really it was about the minor strike in the 1980s. And it really got… It was a community profile of how, when a crime happens or when tragedy happens, how history is not very far be beneath the surface. And it was also incredibly tender. So if you can seek that out and find a way to watch it, please do. It is just so, so good. And I’m reading a book that is going to come out. I’ve been very lucky to receive an advanced copy of it, called At Home on an Unruly Planet by Madeline Ostrander, I think is how you pronounce her name. And it is about climate change and finding a home on a changing earth and really balancing where humans can find their feet within all the change around us and how separation of people from conservation and environmental management just is untenable, so really great memoir.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

So thank you for those recommendations. We always add those to the Rural Assembly website so folks who receive our emails and newsletters can have access to those. So Sherwood, and then say the book name one more time.

Lyndsie Bourgon:

At Home on an Unruly Planet.

Whitney Kimball Coe:

Perfect. Thank you so much, Lyndsie. I’ve enjoyed this conversation.

Lyndsie Bourgon:

Me too. Thanks for having me.


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