If you own private woodlands or you farm near public forest, you just might be able to do the eastern white oak tree a solid. Due to supply chain problems and soaring lumber prices, conditions have been just right for timber theft. And, since it’s used in the manufacture of whiskey barrels, white oak is particularly in demand.
This, in turn, has made white oak trees extra attractive targets for poachers.
Enter Timber Tracking
Fortunately, Adventure Scientists, a Montana-based citizen science organization, is running a long-term Timber Tracking project that may be able to help. From October 1 through December 31, 2022, the project is accepting DNA samples collected from eastern white oak trees growing in 34 states in the U.S.
The goal? Create an online chemical and genetic reference library with countless potential uses—including prosecuting timber thieves.
“It’s open source, so anyone could access that for various reasons, whether it’s research questions or litigation,” says Michelle Toshack. Toshack serves as associate director of project management for Adventure Scientists. “[The DNA information is] living in perpetuity in this online repository,” she continues.
The Timber Tracking initiative hopes to add new volunteers who are based in Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Michigan, Kentucky and Louisiana. But there are also DNA collection opportunities in parts of Indiana, southern Illinois, Ohio and beyond.
Until recently, tracking stolen trees was very difficult—especially once the lumber is milled and distributed. But the genetic analysis of tree samples is changing that.
According to an August 2022 Science Findings Journal article, “Genetic testing confirms that random matches between DNA profiles in trees is less than one in a trillion. With DNA profiling, it is possible to match logs, boards and sawdust to their tree of origin.”
Furthermore, the authors report, “Through genetic testing, the geographic source of wood can be determined to within six to 60 miles (10 to 100 kilometers) from the true source.”
That means the Timber Tracking program’s growing DNA database could potentially help to protect threatened species in other parts of the world.
“If you look at oaks as a group, this [wood] is commonly bought and sold for all sorts of purposes around the world,” Toshack says. “And there are some oaks that are threatened or protected. There’s one that’s called the Mongolian white oak that provides habitat for Siberian tigers. So, we’re talking about critically important species that could be taken and then sold—mislabeled—as white oak….
“This reference library can indeed say, ‘Is this a white oak? Is this a Mongolian white oak?’ and help regulate [world trade.]”
You may have submitted a pet’s DNA to learn more about Fluffy or Fido’s origins. You may even have sent off your own DNA to learn about your family history, potential health concerns and more.
Collecting and submitting tree DNA isn’t much different.
Before Timber Tracking volunteers gather leaves, twigs, acorn caps or tree cores, they must complete an online application and training. The online training covers timber theft, identifying eastern white oaks and the scientific protocols for collecting different sample types.
After training, volunteers receive a special field guide and sample collection equipment—on loan for the duration of the project. “People have about six weeks to collect up to 10 samples,” Toshack says.
Just what happens to the samples volunteers mail in? “Here in Montana, we go through data quality checks,” Toshack says. “We check for [tree] identification. We check for sample quality—like if there’s any fungal growth or anything that would influence the samples.
“And then we send them on to our partner lab in Oregon. That’s the Pacific Northwest Research Station managed by the Forest Service.”
At that lab, the samples undergo careful analyses. “Some samples are used for genetic analysis and other types are used for the chemical analysis,” Toshack explains. “And then they can build these reference libraries after they’ve gone through the tedious process of analyzing all of them.”
The eastern white oak tree isn’t the first tree type the Timber Tracking program has cataloged. (It likely won’t be the last either.)
“We started this work in 2018,” Toshack says. “Big leaf maple was the first species that we worked on. Since then, eastern white oak is our sixth species.”
She adds, “We aren’t certain of what species is next, but we are very excited to continue this work. We will wrap up by the end of the year and we’re very interested to keep going.”