Book Review - Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America's Woods by Lyndsie Bourgon
Updated: Dec 19, 2022
By Courtney Maxwell-Alves, Manager of Development
Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods by Lyndsie Bourgon is an honest, well-researched investigation into tree poaching in the Pacific Northwest of the United States and Canada. Reading like a true crime retelling of a cat-and-mouse investigation, when so much is at stake, that’s exactly the point.
Although Bourgon examines the costs related to tree poaching, including the impact on the environment, social and community issues are at the heart of this book. It is no surprise that Tree Thieves was a finalist for the Environmental Literature category of the 2022 Banff Centre Mountain Film and Book Festival.
One of the many things I loved about this book was the format and flow. It was very interesting to learn the historical meaning of the word forest, as a place of refuge, and how this meaning changed as the cultural context changed over time. The author then takes the reader through an examination of the logging industry, how this led to environmentalists advocating for conservation and the creation of national and provincial/state parks and forests, and, ultimately, how this led to timber poaching and the breakdown of local communities. Connection to place is important and most of the book focuses on Humboldt County in Northern California (while also mentioning other places in North America and Peru). Understanding the unique social, economic, and cultural context of logging and timber poaching is central to Bourgon’s main arguments throughout the book.
An important strength of this book is the author’s ability to present different perspectives with honesty, empathy, and understanding. This balancing act is no small feat: Bourgon manages to give an excellent overview of timber poaching and its connection to locals and loggers, park rangers and law enforcement, scientists and researchers, and environmentalists. I loved the use of individual stories behind logging and its impact. I particularly enjoyed how the author touched on the differing perspectives of not only rural versus city folk, but also job loss versus environmentalism and tourism, and nature (ways of life) versus aesthetic nature (beauty, recreation).
Another aspect of the book that I thoroughly enjoyed was the connection between timber poaching, criminal investigations, and technological and research innovation. Prior to reading this book, timber poaching was an abstract idea to me. I knew it happened and it was problematic for many reasons including climate change, but I did not understand the sheer scope of the issue. I learned a lot from the connections the author made between Peru and Canada: how similar economic and social issues (job loss, drugs, homelessness) and conservation laws (creation of a national park or conservation area) provide an ideal environment for poaching. Bourgon skillfully uses timber poaching to capture an important threat to fighting climate change: when people are focused on providing for their family and maintaining a way of life and culture, environmentalism becomes less important and climate change is seen as an issue for the future.
Ultimately, though, this book satisfies the true crime aficionado in me as a reader. The evolution of park rangers as tourist guides and trail maintenance to law enforcement with police training and guns is astonishing to me. Moreover, the parallels between the use of DNA in criminal investigations with the use of tree DNA in poaching investigations could be its own true crime book.
Pick up a copy of Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods for yourself at the Whyte Museum Book Shop, located at 111 Bear St. in Banff.
About the Author
She writes about the environment and its entanglement with history, culture, and identity. Her features have been published in The Atlantic, Smithsonian, the Guardian, the Oxford American, Aeon, The Walrus, Hazlitt, and elsewhere. In 2018, she traveled to Peru with National Geographic to document Indigenous experiences of timber theft.
Her first book, TREE THIEVES, was published in June 2022. It uses timber poaching to explore questions of inequality, conservation history, and how the natural world defines who we are.
Her oral history research focuses on the social and cultural experiences of natural resource extraction, agriculture, and land management. Her most recent projects cover land use along the Trans Mountain pipeline corridor, and the final days of British-Antarctic whaling.
In 2017, she completed her MLitt Environmental History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. She earned her Bachelor of Journalism (Honours) from the University of King's College in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Image 1: Cover of Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods
Image 2: Image courtesy of Lyndsie Bourgon.