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Photo of a redwood tree with a burl.

A rare snow dusts a redwood tree with a burl along a trail in Del Norte Coast Redwoods Park in California.

Photograph by Michael Nichols, National Geographic

Brian Clark Howard

National Geographic

Published March 6, 2014

They sneak into the park at night. They're out to saw off a block of wood from a redwood that contains a burl—a knobby growth that contains a dormant seed bud.

And the damage they're doing is so serious that starting March 1, the Redwood National and State Parks in coastal northern California have closed and gated off popular Newton B. Drury Parkway, which winds through the protected lands, from sunset to sunrise.

Wood poachers have done increasing harm to the redwoods in recent months, park spokesperson Jeff Bomke told National Geographic.

Bomke says he cannot reveal how many wood poachers have been arrested in the area, but park law enforcement ranger Laura Denny told the Associated Press Tuesday that she could only recall "two or three" arrests over the past 12 years. She pointed to the vast amounts of territory that rangers must cover and the fact that poachers quickly move from tree to tree.

Those caught stealing wood from the parks may face felony charges and prison time, though most recent convictions have been misdemeanor fines.

The targeted redwoods are the tallest trees on Earth, with heights approaching 400 feet (122 meters). (Learn more about redwoods in National Geographic magazine.)

What's a Burl?

Woodworkers prize the burls, which tend to cluster near the base of the tree but can appear farther up the trunk. They like the swirling grain patterns, particularly the circular shapes called "eyes," and turn the burls into furniture, bowls, clocks, and knickknacks.

"We are often asked, 'What is the price of a burl?'" says Bomke. "A burl is priceless if it comes from a national park that is an International Biosphere Reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage Site."

Local wood dealers reportedly pay $2 to $3 a pound for high-quality burl wood.

There are legal sources for burls, from trees on private land. But demand is high and there are fewer burls available from these legitimate sources.

In the parks, the poachers at first trained their chainsaws on fallen redwoods, says Bomke. When they ran out of fallen trees, the poachers went after standing trees.

Photo of the Tall Trees Grove in Redwood National Park.
The Tall Trees Grove in Redwood National Park, California, is home to the Libbey Tree, one of the tallest known redwoods.
Photograph by Michael Nichols, National Geographic

Trouble for the Trees

Removing a burl can jeopardize the health of an individual tree—and an entire forest.

When a burl is cut from a living tree, it opens up a wound that can let in insects or disease, says Bomke. "We have seen trees fail from removal of this material," he says.

If thieves fell a redwood to get a burl that's 40 feet up, they may also bring down other trees in the process, says Bomke, and disturb wildlife like nesting marbled murrelets, an endangered species in the region.

Normally, when a tree topples over due to old age or a traumatic event, its burls sprout new growth to form a new tree. "So by removing it you are potentially removing the tree's ability to reproduce," says Bomke.

Redwoods do also produce seeds, although they primarily reproduce by sprouting from burls.

Enforcement Challenges

Bomke calls enforcement against wood poachers "a high priority." But rangers have a lot of ground to cover. Redwood National Park and California's Del Norte Coast, Jedediah Smith, and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Parks protect a combined 133,000 acres (540 square kilometers).

Sam Hodder, the president and CEO of the San Francisco-based nonprofit Save the Redwoods League, told National Geographic that a longer-term solution to burl poaching will be to "inspire a sense of ownership and pride in the redwood landscape and the communities around it."

Hodder says the crimes have been committed by "a few bad actors acting out of desperation," and he says his group hopes to work with agencies and surrounding communities to improve the economic prospects of the region, so fewer people are driven to poaching.

"The more we can do to restore habitat and improve the visitor experience, recreational opportunities, and local lodging, the more we can inspire positive use of the park, and some of those illegal uses will be pushed out," says Hodder. More tourists spending more money would mean more job opportunities for locals, he explained.

In the meantime, Bomke says the road closure will not affect campers in the parks, because it only restricts access to areas designated for day use.

"There is no legitimate reason to be in the redwood forests at night," says Bomke.

Follow Brian Clark Howard on Twitter and Google+.

21 comments
Eric Blatter
Eric Blatter

What? Trees feel pain? The behavior you are concerned about concerns me too, and I don't have any problem throwing those people in prison for five to ten years. But really, posting that trees feel pain is a whole lot silly. It's too bad that the Park Bureau and the Park Service can't use volunteers to help police the forest. If I lived even remotely close I'd volunteer a few nights a week.

raymond wells
raymond wells

this type  of crime should be a felony and who ever is doing it should be cut up of there body parts so they can feel the pain

mary floyd
mary floyd

I lived in Humboldt County for 20 years and saw the devastation done to the national parks and forests:  drug cartels cutting down trees to plant marijuana, killing elk to take their antlers and this, burl stealing plus much much more.  There are so many people on drugs up in that area that it is a major cost of money and energy to keep them from stealing from the parks as well as other people.  One camping area alongside Hwy 101 near a beautiful beach had to be closed because campers were being broken into....

scary place.   

Jensen Mott
Jensen Mott

It makes me really sad that people are willing to harm trees to get the things that they want. The redwood forest is one of the most amazing national forests we have! Those trees have been growing for many years and hurting them is ruining all those years of hard work. I really hope people reconsider hurting the trees in any way.

Jensen | http://cedarshop.com/calgary-lumber-supply-products/

steve harvey
steve harvey

Perhaps they could force the local wood workers to document how they came to possess the burls. They could install tracking devices in some low hanging perimeter burls too. 

David Hessell
David Hessell

Punish the people that do it. Very simple. Punish them HARD.


But yes, put up gates ... That will help.

Veronika S.
Veronika S.

 Pretty cool. Too much writing nah I didn't read it all

zak jansen
zak jansen

There is definitely reason to be in the forest at night and these poachers have ruined that experience for all of us.  There is no reason to be in the State and National Parks with a chainsaw at night!  Save the Redwoods.   Stop burl poachers and burl dealers before it is too late.

Franc Evan Dandoy
Franc Evan Dandoy

Poor trees. If there is a market for the wood products mentioned, there would always be greedy men to exploit that market, no matter what the costs to the environment may be. 

Alanna Parker
Alanna Parker

Is there nothing sacred on this earth that human beings don't have a hand in destroying. It just seems to never end, it just hurts my heart every time I read another article on something being turned for a profit. I don't know what kind of people are responsible for these acts. They have no conscience.

karen h.
karen h.

It's easier to keep an eye on the wood dealers, isn't it?  The dealers encourage the plunderers.  Unspeakably obscene, all of it.  This is true for all species and natural resources suffering extinction at the hands of greed.

Suzanne Hafer
Suzanne Hafer

Simple greed is what has caused all of habitat destruction all over the world.  This makes me so sad.

lupe dahlke
lupe dahlke

The Bison, the Tiger, the Rino, the Elephant, plus so many of our other beautiful majestic animals in jeopardy...now the sacred Redwoods!! What is becoming of our human race and our values? A "few bad actors" ?? No, these people are criminals, plain and simple, and should be punished as felons, not a misdemeanor with a fine.

So, please, Mr. Sam Hodder, get tough NOW, act NOW, demand that those agencies and surrounding communities AND the State Legislature work with your group to keep these ancient trees safe. Tomorrow may be too late.

Gwendolyn Mugliston
Gwendolyn Mugliston

Pride, fear, greed, lust and envy.  Advertising addresses all five...the 5 deadly sins...redwood burls address all 5.  "I;ve got a burl bowl, you don't!". "If I don't get one now, I never will."  "I gotta have one. Meryl has one."  "Ohh-h-h. Isn't it beautiful. I must have it to look at all the time."  "Oh, wow, they have one. What makes them better than me? I want one."   


Let's send an appeal to the State legislature and get troops in there to guard those ancient, venerable trees.  They are part of the heart beat of our planet.  


But, oh, wait.  Who cares after all those same robbers don't believe in climate change, do they?  Or the rights of sentient beings?   How do we know for sure that these thousand year old trees with intertwining roots do not hold the earth together?  How do we? They have certainly held our hearts together for as long as white people and Native Americans have roamed the State of Jefferson. 


If plants squeak when cut, how can we with our limited senses hear the scream of suffering from the redwoods as their reproductive selves  are cut off?


Come on, come on.  Let's protect those trees.  Maybe we citizens should do it.  I'll go west from PA to help. 

Carmen Leonard
Carmen Leonard

It saddens me to think that there are people so callous to do this terrible maiming to these beautiful forest trees , I`m sure they wouldn't like a toe or finger or knee taken from their bodes to make pretty trinkets from ,education is needed ,this appalling act must stop !! 

Angel Fitzsimmons
Angel Fitzsimmons

These trees are a sacred gift to all of us.  To maim them, especially for senseless profit, constitutes yet another adulteration of our beautiful planet.

Lily Wallace
Lily Wallace

This doesn't surprise me at all ...burl is becoming hot again in the design world..burl tables sell for big money!!

mary floyd
mary floyd

@karen h.  


Exactly!  The wordworkers should provide a receipt for the burls and other beautiful pieces of redwood they are working on.  Legal if bought from a private property owner, illegal from the closer, easier to get to Redwood National Park!

Jesus Carrillo
Jesus Carrillo

@lupe dahlke


I agree, this is a reasonable and weighted solution.

Jesus Carrillo
Jesus Carrillo

@Gwendolyn Mugliston


Yes, deploying the Army should be the solution.  Or even better, let's build a wall similar to the border wall around the trees.

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