Timber sleuths bring crime-fighting forensics lab to OSU


INTERPOL: Illegally harvested timber trade is between $51 billion and $152 billion each year

A pile of trees generic logging logs_489371

CLACKAMAS COUNTY, Ore. (KOIN) — A forensics lab that helps fight timber crime just set up shop at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry.

The United States has laws regulating or banning the import of certain endangered species of timber. However, some importers try to get around those laws by lying about which species they’re importing, or where the timber came from, according to a press release from OSU.

“The illegal timber trade is a direct attack on sustainable livelihoods and ecosystems in Oregon and other parts of the country, and also abroad,” Anthony S. Davis, interim dean of the College of Forestry, said in the release.

Wood identification training in Cameroon. Wood products from global hot spots of illegal logging such as central Africa frequently enter the U.S. through the global timber trade (United States Forest Service).

The International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) estimates the trade in illegally harvested timber is between $51 billion and $152 billion each year. In the United States, the impact is around $1 billion, mostly in the form of depressed wood prices when “illegal actors” don’t pay taxes or abide by regulations, an OSU spokesperson told KOIN 6 News.

Scientists at the Wood Identification & Screening Center (WISC) use a specialized type of mass spectrometry, a process that provides information about a sample’s molecular compounds. They can identify the genus and species of a sliver of wood in just seconds. If they have enough reference samples from a known location, they can also figure out where the material came from.

In practical applications, scientists at WISC determine if a truckload of logs, a guitar, a table or other products are indeed made of the species they claim to be made of.

The center was previously headquartered in Ashland. Its move to Corvallis is the result of a $4 million, five-year grant from the United States Forest Service International Programs Office, according to OSU. The university says having WISC in Corvallis will give the center access to more reference databases. In turn, OSU students will have the “opportunity to gain valuable work and research experience applicable to their future careers,” according to professor Eric Hansen.

Cady Lancaster of the Wood Identification & Screening Laboratory checks out a sample (United States Forest Service).

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