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Poaching Redwood Burl Affects Tree’s Reproduction

by on March 12, 2014

Redwood State Park. Photo: Justin Kern, Flickr.
Redwood State Park. Photo: Justin Kern, Flickr.

Like other conifer trees, coast redwoods produce cones with seeds. However, their main reproductive strategy involves the lumpy burls that bulge from their base and roots, which sprout clones of the parent tree.

“It’s very difficult for a seed to drop on the forest floor and grow. There isn’t much light,” said Emily Burns, the science director of Save the Redwoods League. “The (burl) sprout is going to be able to benefit from the nutrients and water provided from the parent plant and the sugar from the canopy.”

When the parent tree dies, or space in the canopy opens up, the burl sprout is ready to shoot up quickly and claim the real estate.

“It’s a brilliant strategy,” said Burns. “To me it’s like an insurance policy for the plant — rebuild after disaster.”

A burl grows along the base of a redwood tree. Photo: Dale Beckett, Flickr.

A burl grows along the base of a redwood tree. Photo: Dale Beckett, Flickr.

Far from being merely misshapen growths, burls can be considered a key mechanism of survival of the world’s tallest trees. They also happen to be the prize of many a wood collector for the unusual shapes and ring patterns that form from the twisted and interlocked grain.

Along the northern California coast, burl poachers have become so pervasive that park officials have started closing the popular Newton B. Drury Scenic Parkway in Redwood National and State Parks at dusk. The poachers are apparently after the largest burls that grow in the remaining old growth redwood stands. Hacking off a burl not only destroys the redwood’s effectiveness at reproduction, but also opens the tree up to disease and other infections, and makes it susceptible to falling over, otherwise known as windthrow.

But Burns said burl removal doesn’t necessarily cause the tree to die.

“Redwoods are very hearty and very good at regrowing bark over their wounds,” she said. “There’s a lot of reason to think that these trees will be okay, but it’s weakening the tree. It takes a long time, but redwoods really do heal over wounds.”

Redwood burl boxes sold at the Muir Woods gift shop. Photo: Austin, Flickr.

Redwood burl boxes sold at the Muir Woods gift shop. The wood comes from old stumps from trees, fallen trees or waste wood lumber operations  Photo: Austin, Flickr.

In theory, burl wood harvesting could be a sustainable resource, if done properly, Burns said. Burl wood bowls, furniture and other items can be found in shops in the Bay Area, but its source is rarely labeled, leaving open the question of whether the wood is legally harvested off private lands or whether it’s been poached from parks.

“The issue is, we can’t trace the source of it as a consumer, so given a sense of caution I would say don’t buy burl,” said Burns.

If you find redwood burl hard to resist (it is, indeed, beautiful), there is one palatable option. Search for burl wood products under the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) label. The FSC certifies wood and wood products as sustainably harvested. Burl wood would likely fall under its “chain of custody” standards for secondary wood products, said FSC spokesperson Brad Kahn.

“If a forest is being harvested illegally (poaching implies this), then it cannot be FSC certified,” said Kahn in an email. “Legality is one of the first things the auditor checks. But assuming it is legal and part of an auditor approved management plan, a forest landowner could theoretically include burl as a product they produce from their certified forest.”

“In short, there is no reason that FSC certified burl could not be sold into the market, as long as the forest is managed to FSC standards.”

One fun fact about redwood burls: some of the trees sprout albino. They never turn green, and presumably cannot survive without the parent tree, because they do not produce chlorophyll.

“If we lose those burls, we lose those genetic anomalies,” said Burns.

Alison Hawkes is the online editor of Bay Nature.

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Barry Grimm on March 13th, 2014 at 6:09 pm

There are major soft spots with the Forest Stewardship Council certification process. The organization being audited and certified is paying for the FSC audit. This is a conflict of interest in the most direct sense. Typically you don’t want the audit report to say that your customer’s practices are questionable in any significant way — because they may decide to purchase audit and certification services elsewhere.
Auditors typically avoid this problem of finding questionable practices by performing superficial reviews that don’t probe very deeply.

Alison Hawkes on March 21st, 2014 at 1:29 pm

From FSC spokesperson Brad Kahn:
To become certified, companies hire FSC accredited auditors, including groups such as Rainforest Alliance (the biggest FSC auditor), Scientific Certification Systems and Bureau Veritas. FSC is aware of the potential for a conflict of interest, so the system was developed with multiple checks and balances. First, forest management audit reports are public so stakeholders – including competitors – can check on claims being made. In addition, FSC requires robust stakeholder engagement, offering another opportunity for interested parties to make sure key points are included in the audit. And FSC has a dispute resolution system, where any stakeholder can dispute any certification, requiring an increasing level of oversight – first by the auditor, second by Accreditation Services International – the group that accredits the auditors – and finally by FSC International. At each level, claims being made are verified on site. Auditors found to have repeatedly violated FSC policies and standards lose their accreditation, as happens from time to time.

Given the multiple checks and balances, FSC believes conflicts of interest have been effectively mitigated. Yes, they may still exist but FSC works very hard to ensure auditors work to FSC standards.

In reality, there is always a “fee for service” component attached to auditing. A case could be made for a different revenue source, but the sustainability of that system would be open to similar questions and opportunities to influence funding raise the same types of potential conflicts.

In short, we have a high degree of confidence in the credibility of the system and that any bad actors are uncovered and lose their capacity to conduct FSC certifications.

brett on May 22nd, 2014 at 8:56 am

Is there any legal way to take burl in California?

Harrison Davignon on February 6th, 2015 at 10:09 am

The legal way to get a burl is on private property, the property owner them selves cuts the burl, hires someone to cut it or gets permission from someone to cut a burl on there property. What we need is human lie detectors who can tell who is lying or not to make sure the seller of the burl wood is not faking were the wood came from, such as saying it came from my property, when it really came from a national park. If a guilty party is found the wood should be returned to the forest as nurse logs to help enrich the soil, fine the people, jail time fine them, have volunteer forest expert educate them on the importance of burls and old growth trees in nature so they aware of the impact they have on the forest and maybe learn something new they never though about and figure out a way to give these people other sources of income, because not all the poachers are wood works, so some of them are broke and just need money for them and there families. The increased forest patrol rangers are a great idea,but we to minimize the impact of the increased foot traffic, because to many people in these areas can cause harm, from tree root trampling, disturbing wildlife, soil erosion, killing important pants. We should have volunteer education opportunities to help prevent this from happening in the first place. You may be thinking oh people are going ignore the speaker because they don’t care, People could end up caring, it’s like my bicycle riding witch I have a passion for, I used to hate it as a kid, but I slowly over time learned how get the proper bike, clothing and equipment to make riding better. The biggest problem we have is the anti environmental congress across the nation, who want to sell off national parks and not invest is protecting them.

Burl Woods Insurance – Information on February 21st, 2016 at 2:09 pm

[…] Poaching Redwood Burl Affects Tree’s Reproduction – When the parent tree dies, or space in the canopy opens up, the burl sprout is ready to shoot up quickly and claim the real estate. “It’s a brilliant strategy,” said Burns. “To me it’s like an insurance policy for the plant — rebuild after … […]

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