Center for Wood Anatomy Research
Alex Wiedenhoeft works on a mortar sample in his lab at the Center for Wood Anatomy Research.
In March 2014, Sri Lankan customs officials got a tip that valuable contraband was moving through the country’s port city of Colombo.
Authorities confiscated 28 containers of rosewood timber. Known for its even texture, high density and unique scent, rosewood is prized for making everything from furniture to musical instruments.
But many species of rosewood are endangered, and its logging and trading are heavily regulated. Sri Lanka’s location on a major shipping route between Asia, Africa and Europe makes it a hub of smuggled plants and animals.
The 3,669 logs authorities seized were valued at more than $7 million.
But there was just one problem: Sri Lankan officials weren’t quite sure if the wood they seized was an endangered variety or another that is legal for trade.
So they turned to Alex Wiedenhoeft in Madison, one of the world’s foremost forensic wood anatomists and a secret weapon in the fight against illegal logging.
Officials around the globe often seek out the help of Wiedenhoeft, who is the team leader of the Center for Wood Anatomy Research (CWAR) at the U.S. Forest Products Laboratory on the UW-Madison campus.
Samples of endangered Madagascar rosewood.
The Sri Lankan authorities asked Wiedenhoeft to determine what kind of wood they’d confiscated and where it came from. Soon after, specimens cut from the ends of two of the suspect logs arrived on Wiedenhoeft’s desk. “To ensure that the chain of custody had not been tampered with, they came with imprinted wax seals over the strings that were binding the packages shut,” Wiedenhoeft recalls.
Wiedenhoeft sliced a cross-section of the sample, looked at it with a magnifying glass, then made a slide and examined it under a microscope. While making a definitive ID can take anywhere from a few minutes to several months, this rosewood was relatively easy to read.
“I looked at the wood’s anatomy, and it was consistent with known species of rosewood from Madagascar.”
The island of Madagascar is home to many rosewood species found nowhere else on earth. Although protected, The Guardian reports, “The wood is being smuggled out of Madagascar at an alarming rate.”
Armed with Wiedenhoeft’s expert opinion, Sri Lanka pulled the 420 metric tons of rosewood off the black market.
Wiedenhoeft still keeps the samples in his department’s lockup. “This wood is a dark, rich purple, streaked with black,” he says. “It really is magnificent, and it’s heartbreaking that these trees are being cut down so aggressively.”
An estimated $150 billion a year changes hands in the complex, global forest products industry that logs 32 million acres of forest every year, often illegally, leaving a trail of devastation to ecosystems and local economies around the world. Much of that timber makes its way to the United States, currently the largest wood products market in the world.
Timber can be extremely valuable, but it is bulky. “A suitcase of cocaine has some enormous crazy street value,” says Wiedenhoeft. “But a suitcase of wood doesn’t get you very much. To make a profit, you have to smuggle ships and ships of the stuff. Until recently, few enforcement agencies have been looking for it.”
Now that they are, Wiedenhoeft is in high demand.
“At the CWAR one of our roles is to stop driving global demand for endangered timber,” says Wiedenhoeft. “We don’t have the ability to go off into the woods and protect the rainforest. We do it through the legal venues at our ports of entry and border crossings, where illegally harvested foreign material enters trade in the United States. It’s like mowing your lawn to kill the weeds; eventually you just wear them down.”
Environmental Investigation Agen
The Lacey Amendment makes it illegal to sell resources in the U.S., like West African kosso, that are protected in their home country.
There are two legal mechanisms the U.S. has to try to stop illegally logged wood from entering American commerce.
One is the agreement between governments to keep international trade in wild animals and plants from threatening species survival: the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). While useful, it is not a panacea.
“When hundreds of member countries get together, it’s very difficult for people to agree,” says Wiedenhoeft. “It has its limitations, but it’s a great start. It was CITES regulations that blocked the shipment of the rosewood from Madagascar.”
Here in the U.S., we also have the Lacey Act, a 1900 law that bans trafficking in illegal wildlife and has been providing the muscle to seize illegally harvested timber at our borders since 2008, when the act was amended to include plants and plant products. Wiedenhoeft was consulted extensively during the drafting of the amendment.
“One of the interesting things about the Lacey Amendment was the consortium of people supporting it,” he says. “Of course there were the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Investigation Agency.” But industry groups like the American Forest and Paper Association and the Society of American Foresters also supported the effort. “You had the tree huggers and the tree cutter-downers all working together.”
That makes sense when you consider that illegal logging hurts legal operations. The American Forest and Paper Association has estimated U.S. firms lose at least $460 million a year because undervalued, illegally logged material is competing with sustainably harvested domestic wood.
Jack Hurd, deputy director for the Asia Pacific Region of the Nature Conservancy, is familiar with and praises Wiedenhoeft’s work. He says the Nature Conservancy got involved with timber management about 15 years ago when it was trying to understand what was happening to the orangutan habitat in Indonesia.
“Timber companies have long been going into tropical forests, putting in logging roads and extracting trees that are shipped to China, where they get turned into doors, tables or flooring that ends up in Madison, Wisconsin,” says Hurd.
While there are sustainable ways to harvest timber, there were very few incentives for companies to do so.
“The Lacey Amendment was a brilliant piece of legislation,” says Hurd. “It makes it illegal to sell something in the U.S. that is not legal in the country it came from. All of a sudden companies like Lowe’s and Home Depot felt the heat to make sure that they were selling products from legal sources. Illegal products can now be seized at the port. There can be significant fines.”
For example, Gibson Guitar was fined $300,000 for importing illegally harvested wood including ebony from Madagascar, and they forfeited the seized wood valued at almost as much.
Big leaf mahogany harvested illegally in Brazil slipped through the St. Lawrence Seaway into Detroit in 2013. Not labeled as mahogany, its paperwork listed a declared value of less than $9,000, but a sharp-eyed animal and plant health inspection employee, very likely using an identification manual written by Wiedenhoeft, spotted the deception, and the wood was confiscated before it could be relabeled and sold at a huge profit.
“When the government seizes this stuff, it’s not like when they raid a drug lord where they get the mansion, boats, cars and all the antiques and valuables, which are auctioned off to support law enforcement activities,” says Wiedenhoeft. “When we seize something under CITES authority, it’s like ivory from elephant tusks. It cannot re-enter trade because that would continue to fuel demand. So it has to either be donated to a scientific collection, put into a museum or destroyed.”
A stack of big leaf mahogany, illegally logged in Brazil and confiscated in Detroit.
Wiedenhoeft calls himself an accidental wood anatomist. He knew he would major in science, but back at home after his first semester as a freshman, he says, “I sat up in bed one morning and said out loud, ‘I’m going to be a botanist.’”
“It really was that random,” he adds.
He signed up for a botany class that same day, which led to a student job in the Forest Products Lab. “I latched on, and they couldn’t shake me loose.”
Shortly after the laboratory was created in 1909, Eloise Gerry was hired to start the wood anatomy unit. From her office in UW’s Science Hall, Gerry began accumulating wood samples from fairs and expositions. The collection is now the largest in the world, with 105,000 specimens, which Wiedenhoeft refers to when making identifications.
Wiedenhoeft has made his own mark at the laboratory. With mentor Regis Miller, he developed a manual for identifying tropical timbers.
The guide is used by inspectors on the ground where wood is being transferred. It contains a series of photos of tropical hardwoods that show exactly how they should look when viewed through a 14X magnifying glass, which the inspectors use to make quick, initial assessments to check the wood against what its papers claim that it is.
At first, Wiedenhoeft didn’t fully appreciate the scope of illegal logging.
“Until the mid 2000s, I shared the popular opinion that most illegal logging was done by local people who just needed to buy medicine for their families, or they needed the land to grow food, so they cut a few trees,” says Wiedenhoeft. “I thought that was what we were fighting.”
When he told colleagues from Washington, D.C., that he loved doing forensic botany, but it was not like he was fighting real crime, they laughed. Native communities living in these forests usually have little control over the land and are vulnerable to large-scale illegal loggers.
Wiedenhoeft learned that when law enforcement agents capture a shipment of illegal timber, they also often find illegally captured wildlife, illegal drugs, weapons and slaves. Historically, smugglers have been able to move timber with impunity. Illegal logging accounts for up to 30% of all wood traded globally.
Wiedenhoeft says that revenue from illegally harvested timber has been linked to armed conflicts around the world. During the Khmer Rouge reign in Cambodia in the 1970s, the government funded its operations with an illegal timber harvest. There is also evidence that the Sierra Leone civil war was largely funded by illegal logging.
“This affects us every day even though we may not see it. It’s not just deforestation. It’s politics,” he says. “Now you are starting to talk about genocide, coups, oppression and refugees on a scale that you don’t usually consider when you think of timber harvest and logging products.”
“The international law enforcement community has recently recognized that the same people involved in drug trafficking are also involved in wildlife and timber trafficking,” adds Wiedenhoeft. “Now our officers can shift over and go after the same people with forensic wood evidence. It’s like how they got Al Capone for tax evasion when they couldn’t get evidence of racketeering or murder.”
The Center for Wood Anatomy Research on the UW-Madison campus has 105,000 samples of wood, the largest collection in the world.
Two years ago the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime convened an international expert group meeting in Vienna where Wiedenhoeft helped develop guidelines for timber forensics and inspections.
“We had everyone there,” he says. “There were representatives of the judiciary that will deal with the application of the law, law enforcement that deals with actually catching the crooks and scientific geeks who provide the evidence to help put the criminals away.”
Wiedenhoeft laments that the geeks are in short supply. “It seems when a country’s economic platform is based on forests, they tend to take a greater interest in wood science. Now that the U.S. has a different economy our attention is focused on other resources.”
Forensics can provide a real-world use for more esoteric botanical research. Criminology can benefit from knowledge of wood, leaves, diatoms, pollen and algae, adds Wiedenhoeft, “whether it is a civil case looking at potential wood contamination in sauerkraut products or a criminal case involving tiny bits of wood found on a murder suspect from a pool cue that someone was beaten to death with.”
Forensic botany also plays a key role in solving mysteries. For instance, Wiedenhoeft helped determine the cause of a fatal plane crash outside of Chicago. Experts were stumped about why two small planes collided in daylight and good weather. They needed to reconstruct what happened to determine how the planes came together.
Wiedenhoeft identified both the wood embedded in one plane and the propeller as sitka spruce. His insights helped determine which plane crashed into the other.
It is only in the last 10 years, notes Wiedenhoeft, that forensic botanists have been reaching out and saying to law enforcement, “We can help you with this.”
Wiedenhoeft has also worked on product safety cases. His wood identification showed that baby cribs were being made from tree species that were too weak. The cribs were breaking and babies were dying.
He coordinated last spring with UW botany professor Sara Hotchkiss to teach a forensic botany class. Hotchkiss sees forensic botany as a great way to teach how science works.
“We are making introductory science much more active, and forensics is a way to put science into a very meaningful context,” says Hotchkiss “It’s all about evaluating evidence.” Though her main field is pollen identification for climate and environmental research, Hotchkiss has also helped a coroner analyze pollen found on a jacket sleeve for a criminal case.
“There is a tremendous missing arena of evidence in most U.S. courts cases,” says Hotchkiss. “We rarely use botanical evidence, such as pollen, bits of wood, fungi, anything that can be found on the suspect’s clothing or objects involved in the case — but often, they have picked up trace botanical evidence from their surroundings.”
Wiedenhoeft hopes that the new forensic botany class will take root and grow. “If I could train 15 or 20 people in some area of wood anatomy that is relevant to their own research and interests, and they take that forward, we will spread this legacy that has been passed down to me. That’s why I teach forensic botany. We don’t want to lose the interest, the knowledge base, the appreciation of it. My goal is to get people excited about botany.”
The Botany Department is planning to offer an advanced forensic wood ID course focused on illegal logging, organized by Wiedenhoeft and Marisa Otegui, associate professor of botany and genetics at UW-Madison, along with Chinese wood anatomist Yafang Yin, who will spend a sabbatical year in the Forest Products Lab starting in November.
China, as the world’s largest consumer of unfinished timber, has an interest in knowing what wood it is importing.
These classes, Wiedenhoeft hopes, will demonstrate to students the need for these skills.
“I took plant anatomy at UW-Madison in 1995,” says Wiedenhoeft. “I was sitting in the chairs my students now sit in, thinking, ‘Am I ever going to use this information?’ Forensic botany makes something as nerdy as plant anatomy very meaningful in the real world. The circumstances can be depressing, but it’s a place where science can step in and make a difference.”
Greening Homes Ltd.
How to be a good detective when buying wood products
Do you know where your bookcase came from? How about that picture frame around your Greenpeace poster? Forest certification by an independent third party evaluates timber practices around the world with standards that balance environmental, social and economic objectives.
Jack Hurd, of the Nature Conservancy, says look for the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) logo on any wood product you buy, whether it’s paper, a dining table or floor panels. If you see the FSC logo, that means it came from a well-managed and legal forest harvest. It has been tracked through a supply chain and entered the market with assurances that it was a responsibly sourced and produced product.