by Alex Fox/Smithsonianmag.com
In 2018, the Maple Fire ripped through Washington state’s Olympic National Forest, burning 3,300 acres and taking down dozens of bigleaf maple trees, a species prized for its wood, which is used to make high-end acoustic guitars. Local officials became suspicious that the conflagration might have been a tree theft gone wrong when they noticed large stumps surrounded by sawed off limbs amid the destruction.
Now, in a first for federal criminal proceedings, tree DNA has been used to convict two men of stealing the valuable trees from public lands and selling them to local mills, the Associated Press reports.
Richard Cronn, a research geneticist for the Agriculture Department’s Forest Service, showed via DNA analysis that the lumber Wilke sold to local mills matched the remains of three bigleaf maples in the charred national forest and had not been lawfully harvested from private lands with a valid permit as the defendant claimed.
“The DNA analysis was so precise that it found the probability of the match being coincidental was approximately one in one undecillion (one followed by 36 zeros),” according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Western Washington.