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Trees fight back: First-ever use of tree DNA in prosecution sends poacher to prison

USA, Washington, Olympic National Park, Hoh Rainforest, Trail of Mosses (James Randklev/Getty Images)

The trees are fighting back.

They’re under threat from the effects of climate change and raging forest fires — and this week they have ensured the person behind an illegal logging operation will be imprisoned for 20 months.

A case in Washington State represents the first use of DNA evidence from trees during a prosecution in a federal criminal trial.

Justin Andrew Wilke, 39, and a crew of associates were found to have conducted an illegal logging operation in the Elk Lake area of the Olympic National Forest, between April and August 2018. The group removed highly prized maple trees — used to produce musical instruments such as violins and guitars — and forged permits to sell the wood, according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office Western District of Washington. Wilke was sentenced on Monday.

At the trial, a research geneticist for the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Forest Service testified that the wood Wilke sold was a genetic match to the remains of three poached maple trees that 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 1 in 1 undecillion (1 followed by 36 zeros), the statement added.

They stole prized lumber from a national forest. The trees’ DNA proved it, feds say.

Based on this evidence, the jury concluded that the wood Wilke had sold to local mills, had been stolen. The DNA evidence also proved that Wilke had unlawfully harvested and sold wood from seven other maple trees, but the precise locations of those trees have yet to be determined.

The novel tree genetics convinced jury members in Tacoma, Wash., following a six-day trial, to convict Wilke for conspiracy, theft of public property, trafficking in unlawfully harvested timber, among other offenses.

“When people steal trees from our public lands, they are stealing a beautiful and irreplaceable resource from all of us and from future generations,” Tessa M. Gorman, acting U.S. attorney of the Western District of Washington, said in a news release in July.

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The Olympic National Forest is known for its towering, lush and wide-trunked trees. The bigleaf maple is among the more prized inhabitant — its patterned wood often coveted for woodworking and manufacturing musical instruments. But it is illegal to chop down trees in national forests without a permit.

In 2018 Wilke and two others decided one night to cut a bigleaf maple, which contained a wasp’s nest near the tree’s base. To remove the nest, they sprayed insecticide and likely gasoline before lighting it on fire. The group failed to extinguish the fire, which developed into a wildfire and became known as the Maple Fire.

It consumed more than 3,300 acres between August and November 2018 and cost approximately $4.2 million to contain, the court said.

Wilke has always maintained that he did not cause the forest fire, his attorney, Gregory Murphy, previously told The Washington Post. The jury did not convict Wilke of the two federal counts related to the forest fire but did convict him of attempting to cut down the tree where the blaze was set on the night of the fire.

At sentencing, Judge Benjamin H. Settle concluded that the evidence was clear and convincing that Wilke was present when the fire was set and more likely than not personally set or directed one of his crew to set the fire. But Settle also noted that Wilke had made positive strides while on pretrial release, and that prison time was more difficult during the coronavirus pandemic, awarding him a 20-month sentence.

Wilke was also ordered to forfeit the proceeds of his illegal poaching and is required to pay restitution to the U.S. Forest Service.

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