We’re collecting thousands of leaf, seed, and wood samples to create databases of the chemical and genetic signatures of tree species throughout their ranges. This information will power new tools to reveal the origin of any sample of timber––taking away illegal loggers’ ability to sneak poached trees into the world’s wood supply.

In 2022, volunteers adventured to protect eastern white oak trees. Stay tuned to learn what species the project will tackle in 2023!

Six Species, One Massive Effort

Ranging from Alaska to California and from coast to coast, the six species we’ve targeted so far are particularly vulnerable to timber poaching. Many also are on the decline due to climate change. Each species faces its own challenges and has a biological, cultural, and conservation story of its own.

 Our volunteers leverage their skills and local knowledge to collect tree samples across a wide range of locations and at the large scale needed to encompass a species’ geographic ranges.

Eastern White Oak

(Quercus alba L.)
An increase in demand for eastern white oak for whiskey barrels as well as continuing lumber shortages from the pandemic are driving timber theft of this species. Data collection for this species runs from May through December 2022.

Black Walnut

(Juglans nigra)
Once widespread across the United States, black walnut trees are becoming increasingly rare as high prices for its smooth, dark wood drive illegal logging. Data collection for this species is complete.

Coast Redwood

(Sequoia sempervirens)
The tallest trees in the world, old-growth coast redwoods now occupy only 4% of their historic range. Understanding their genetic diversity will improve forest management and help guard against the negative impacts of climate change. Data collection for this species is complete.

Bigleaf Maple

(Acer macrophyllum)
This hardwood species whose common name reflects dinner-plate sized leaves, is targeted by timber thieves for spectacularly-patterned wood often used in guitars and furniture. Data collection for this species is complete.

Western Redcedar

(Thuja plicata)
Not a true cedar, but an arborvitae or “tree of life,” this species has provided indigenous communities with countless practical and cultural uses for thousands of years. Its continued value now makes it a target for illegal logging operations. Data collection for this species is complete.

Alaska Yellow-Cedar

(Callitropsis nootkatensis)
A dramatic droop to its branches makes this species instantly recognizable even without seeing the tell-tale color of its wood. Now across large parts of its range, changing climate patterns are causing mass die-offs of this treasured tree. Data collection for this species is complete.

How Our Partners Use Data to Drive Change

Planning, permitting, analysis, interpretation, and implementation all require the coordinated actions of many players. We are proud to be working with leading organizations in the research, management, and conservation of forests and tree species.

Our partners at the U.S. Forest Service and elsewhere will use the reference libraries of each tree species to track the movement of timber through supply chains, enforce anti-poaching regulations, empower responsible buyers, improve sustainable resource management, and help forest managers plan for the varied impacts of a changing climate.

Our partners at Save the Redwoods League are linking genetic information from coast redwood samples with the environmental characteristics of each tree’s site—giving clues about the function of the genetic variation within each species. This information will help guide conservation and restoration strategies across the coast redwood range.
New Mexico State University’s Conservation Genomics Lab focuses on identifying biological samples, particularly with respect to their geographic origin. The lab couples Next Generation Sequencing data with improved models of genetic differentiation across species’ ranges to pinpoint the source of origin of timber.
Our partners at the World Resources Institute helped to design and guide the project, leveraging their expertise in illegal logging and associated trade. The Institute is a strategy-minded, results-oriented, and outcomes-driven ‘do-tank’ with a strong track record in catalyzing cutting-edge technology to solve environmental problems.

The USA National Phenology Network collaborated with us for the eastern white oak project. The project protocols for eastern white oak data collection are based in part on the USA-NPN’s protocols aimed to understand how oaks are adapting to new environmental conditions. These data are a part of the Quercus Quest Campaign.

The Morton Arboretum is using samples gathered across the eastern white oak range to build tools useful in conserving native oak communities. By analyzing leafs collected by our volunteers, the researchers will train algorithms to identify the unique light wavelengths that oak leaves reflect. This technique will allow land managers to more accurately assess oak populations using remote imaging.

The Science

PC: Ed Espinoza, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Once collected, our samples will undergo two forms of processing: Mass Spectrometry-Data Analysis in Real Time (MS-DART or DART) and genetic analysis.

DART will reveal distinct chemical signatures in each sample. As the tree takes up water and nutrients through its roots throughout its life, it develops a distinct chemical signature. Recognizing these signatures will allow authorities to identify the geographic origin of a sample.

Genetic analysis reveals the naturally occurring variation and interrelatedness of all trees within a species. It will be used like the DART analysis to identify the origin of future timber samples, and to increase our understanding of the adaptations of the species to particular conditions throughout their ranges. This will allow for better management of existing and expanding forests. The resulting database will yield a “family tree” like no other.

Hear what our Forest Service partners have to say about the project!

Richard Cronn, a USDA Forest Service scientist, shares with volunteers how they are helping build one of the biggest and most useful genetic datasets of tree species. The tree samples volunteers are collecting will help the Forest Service combat timber poaching and more sustainably manage our forests.

Keep up with Project Progress

Here’s where volunteers have collected data for the project over the years.

Timber Tracking Project on PBS

Get a firsthand view of our Timber Tracking project from the forest to the forensics lab in this 12-minute film featuring our scientific partners and volunteers from Earth Focus: Season 2, Episode 3 on PBS

Learn More Through Our Project Reports

Eastern Black Walnut


Redwood, Western Redcedar, Alaska Yellow-Cedar

Bigleaf Maple