Theft and tree poaching on the rise thanks to soaring lumber prices

Deforestation concept. Stump of tree after cutting forest. Stump from fresh cut coniferous tree in forest. stump in the coniferous forest from freshly chopped spruce. Banner format. lumber Photo by Ihor Hvozdetskyi/Shutterstock

About every week or so for the past few months, construction manager Garth Babcock has shown up to work in Edmonton, Alta., to find his building materials missing. After a load of lumber is dropped off at a construction site, thieves are making off with the pile come nightfall. 

“It’s the cost that’s driving it,” says Babcock. “If the material wasn’t worth so much, then they wouldn’t put any effort into taking it. But now they can steal $10,000 worth of materials in minutes, when maybe a year ago, it was $1,000, and it wasn’t worth the time or the risk.”

Since the start of the pandemic, lumber prices have soared. Forest fires, mountain pine beetle infestations, and the coronavirus have hampered lumber mill production while people stuck in lockdown have taken on home building projects. Furthermore, a red-hot housing market has bolstered the demand for wood.

Babcock says that a single sheet of sheathing used to cost $10-$15 a year and a half ago, and right now, the price is around $90. Lumber prices have surged by around 350 per cent over the past year, and as a result, thefts have been reported across the country. 

Babcock estimates that his company, Akash Homes, has lost between $50,000 to $75,000 since the start of the year. “Other builders that we’re pretty tight with working in the same neighborhoods are reporting losing $10,000 at least every two  weeks,” he adds.

Thieves have even gone so far as to hot-wire forklifts and load the stash of lumber into a trailer before making off with them in the night. Sometimes the stolen stockpiles have cropped up on resale sites such as Kijiji. 

To prevent further theft, developers are performing nightly patrols, installing security cameras, staggering lumber drop-offs, and different companies are colour-coding their materials so they might be tracked when it appears elsewhere on the market.

“The way the lumber market has gone is incredible,” says Babcock. “I’ve never seen this, and I’ve been in the business for 50 years.”

And it’s not just construction sites feeling the brunt of illegal activity. People have turned to illegal logging to make a profit during the price surge. B.C. officials are reporting stumps of felled fir, cedar, and maple, and heavy equipment left in the forest. 

“In certain instances, the tree has been felled in the wrong direction, and they can’t extract it, so it’s just there on the side of the road,” says Terry Sunderland, a forestry professor at the University of British Columbia who has studied illegal logging in the tropics.

“The usual suspects are the softwoodsso Douglas fir and western red cedar, which are kind of the staple for the building industry,” Sunderland says. “But anecdotal reports are also coming out of Vancouver Island that groups are targeting high-quality hardwoods like big leaf maple, which are used for more bespoke, high-end furniture.” 

Exactly how many trees are being taken is difficult to quantify, but harvesting the biggest and best trees in the forest can have negative impacts on the lumber industry in the future. “They’re going to pick the trees that are the most valuablethe straightest, the largest, the highest quality timber, and what this results in is a phenomenon known as creaming,” says Sunderland. “If you take those trees out, what’s left is a much more variable, inferior genetic stock in the forest. You’re not really going to get the same quality of timber or the same quality of tree.”

Sunderland thought this recent surge in illegal logging was fascinating because it parallels the tree poaching he’s studied in the tropics, but in a country where forest resources are more tightly managed. “There’s clearly not enough disincentive to stop illegal logging,” he says, adding that enforcing regulations and higher fines could disincentivize poachers. “It’s a topic that needs a lot more reflection.”

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