On the morning of March 27, 2018, rangers from Redwood National and State Parks put on their bulletproof vests and jumped into their cars. Their destination wasn't far: a house in the small town of Orick, California, the same town as the park headquarters where the rangers are based. Pulling up to the house, they grabbed their AR-15s. Guns in hand, they pounded on the door, shouting they had a search warrant.
One of the residents opened the door, and the rangers began searching the premises. Two of them rounded the property and went into the backyard, where there was a shed. Holding their semi-automatic rifles up, ready to shoot, they entered the shed and found their suspect, Derek Hughes. "If you shoot me, you're going to have all hell to pay," Hughes reportedly said.
The park rangers handcuffed Hughes. Searching the premises, they found brass knuckles, a handgun, a camera they suspected was stolen from the park, a plastic bag with traces of methamphetamine, and four meth pipes. But the rangers weren't there for any of that. They continued searching for what they were really looking for. And, scattered along a fence, under a tarp, and in a woodworking shop, they found it: chunks of illegally poached redwood.
When most people think of park rangers, they probably think friendly nature guides in fun hats. But at Redwood National and State Parks, the park rangers' mission of protecting old-growth redwood trees has led them to become a kind of anti-poaching police squad. Some of their investigations have been so action-packed they could be episodes of a TV show. Think CSI: Redwood Forest.
A new book by writer and National Geographic Explorer Lyndsie Bourgon dives deep into this fascinating criminal world of tree theft and efforts to combat it. It's called Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America's Woods, and much of it examines poaching conflicts in Orick, the southern gateway to Redwood National and State Parks.