Timber Tracking: Building Genetic Reference Libraries to Combat Illegal Harvest
Adventure Scientists is collecting data to allow officials, suppliers, and consumers to ensure wood products are harvested legally.
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Where are you making a difference?
The Timber Tracking Project currently stretches from central California through Oregon, Washington, Idaho Panhandle, northwest Montana, southeast Alaska, and coastal and interior British Columbia.
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Established (successfully passed early phases, have a plan going forward)
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1. Founding story: Share a story about the "Aha!" moment that led the founder(s) to get started or the story of how you saw the potential for this project to succeed.
Individuals working on the cutting edge of today’s most pressing issues—from deforestation to food security—are often hindered by a lack of reliable, large-scale data from remote environments, leaving opportunities to inform decisions and/or solutions to these issues unrealized. Adventure Scientists was founded to provide the scientific community with access to data from any environment, on any scale.
By mobilizing individuals with strong outdoor skills––mountaineers, divers, whitewater kayakers, skiers, and others––to add data collection to their adventures, Adventure Scientists is uniquely positioned to collect tree tissue samples from far-flung locations on a massive scale for our scientific partners.
2. The problem: What problem are you helping to solve?
The illegal timber trade has devastating impacts on climate and biodiversity. The $100B/yr criminal sector decreases carbon sequestration, drives species to extinction, and bankrolls illegal activities. Genetic and chemical-based wood identification technologies can improve transparency in global supply chains by revealing the species and harvest location of questionable lumber. However, their development and implementation require reference libraries against which to compare unknown samples.
3. Your solution: How are you working to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.
We are building genetic and chemical reference libraries for timber species with high commercial and cultural value by recruiting, training, and managing outdoor-skilled volunteers to collect cones, leaves, and cores across species’ ranges (currently western redcedar and Alaska yellow-cedar).
The resulting libraries will enable officials, suppliers, and consumers of wood products to compare wood to analyzed reference material to ensure it was harvested legally. Genetic analysis of our samples will reveal the naturally occurring variation and interrelatedness within the species and adaptations to particular conditions throughout ranges. This will allow for better management of existing and expanding forests as climate change alters species’ suitable habitats.
Partnership is essential to our theory of change. Once collected, the samples are sent to the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Lab (USFWS) for analysis. Our partners will use these libraries to track the movement of timber through supply chains, enforce anti-poaching regulations through the Lacey Act, empower responsible buyers, and improve sustainable resource management.
4. Innovation: How are you innovating or using unique approaches to solve the problem?
Creating genetic and chemical reference libraries for timber species requires thousands of samples across remote habitat. This dataset would be prohibitively expensive, time-consuming, and physically challenging for our partners to obtain if not for Adventure Scientists. Our vast, outdoor-skilled volunteer network enables us to mobilize a force for data collection with unlimited boots on the ground. Our volunteers have the physical skills to hike long distances to access remote areas of tree species’ ranges, which makes the resulting dataset comprehensive and effective. Our volunteers care deeply about the environments where they recreate and apply their skill and careful training to following detailed scientific protocols.
5. Collaboration: How does your initiative seek to bring key players together to preserve biodiversity?
We are proud to be providing leading organizations in the research, management, and conservation of forests and tree species, including U.S. Forest Service Research Geneticists and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Lab, with access to otherwise inaccessible, critical data.
Adventure Scientists’ widely-distributed community of volunteers has the skills required to thrive in the outdoors and therefore can focus on following protocols. Additionally, these individuals pay close attention to detail, are creative problem solvers, and are able to share their experiences via the rich tradition of storytelling that is at the heart of the outdoor community.
6. Impact: how has your project made a difference so far — in terms of both business outputs and social impact? How do you plan on measuring progress?
We provide scientists with access to otherwise inaccessible, high-quality data. Our volunteers donate their time, travel, equipment, and food costs. Their in-kind contribution to the Timber Tracking Project to date is $1,382,640.
In 2018, Adventure Scientists volunteers collected 1,023 bigleaf maple samples from across the species’ range, completing the field component of our first comprehensive reference libraries on a poached species. In 2019, we collected western redcedar (1,450 samples), coast redwood (2,200 samples) and Alaska yellow-cedar (580 samples). These species cover six U.S. states and one Canadian province. In 2020, we will complete sample collection for western redcedar (910 samples) and Alaska yellow-cedar (1,780 samples).
Our volunteers consistently report that they are more likely to pursue careers in conservation after their service. They report that they take conservation actions and become informed advocates for the issues and species with which they work.
7. Growth strategies: what are your main strategies for scaling your impact?
Our established project infrastructure will translate to additional poached tree species in future project phases. We have streamlined volunteer recruitment, screening, and training by using social media and learning management systems to increase our outreach.
Our data/sample management systems are built for efficiency. In this project, all samples are tracked with barcodes, which include virtual links to contextual metadata regarding the site where the sample was collected (including GPS, photos, and field observations).
To ensure data quality, we co-design protocols with our partners, complete a thorough QA/QC process before projects begin, and monitor data quality throughout the project.
8. Creating shared value: How does your initiative create value for society? Or different stakeholders?
We have mobilized large groups of volunteers and executed over 130 successful projects since 2011. Our volunteers become ambassadors for the issues and places in which they work. By sharing their stories through our owned media channels and through our media partners, we bring issue awareness to large audiences. Additionally, our volunteers have consistently indicated that participation in our projects has led them to take conservation action.
We carefully vet our projects for conservation outcomes and practice data sharing to advance the work of the scientific and conservation communities.
9. Financial sustainability plan: can you tell us about your plan to fund your project and how that plan will be sustainable in the short, medium, and long term?
Adventure Scientists has received support from project partners and private donor partners for our Timber Tracking Project. In our first year, our project partner, World Resources Institute, contributed $117,632. In our second year, Save the Redwoods League contributed $30,080. To date, private individuals and foundations have contributed $95,000. We have also received in-kind media and technology support. Our development team is actively fundraising and has pending proposals for this third year of the timber project. Our project creation team is building relationships to expand the project further in future years.
10. Team: what is the current composition of your current team (types of roles, qualifications, full-time vs. part-time, board members, etc.), and how do you plan to evolve the team’s composition as the project grows?
Adventure Scientists has 14 full-time staff. Our project management team includes seven staff tasked with recruiting, training, and managing our global volunteer network to execute high-quality field data collection.
We have an active and growing board of directors and are in the process of adding to our senior leadership team through hiring a Director of Operations.
11. How did you hear about this challenge?
12. Connection to Biodiversity: How does your project directly contributes to preserving and/or restoring biodiversity? Please share data to support your answer.
The illegal timber trade has global, devastating impacts on climate and biodiversity. Deforestation releases at least one fifth of all global CO2 in the atmosphere and drives forest dwelling species towards extinction by fragmenting some of the most biologically diverse ecosystems on earth (Contreras-Hermosilla, Doornbosch, and Lodge 2007).
According to a study released by the World Bank in 2012: “illegal logging threatens biodiversity, increases carbon emissions, causes landslides, and undermines the resource-based livelihoods of rural peoples, with ringleaders and organized crime profiting at the expense of the poor.” With 1.6 billion people reliant on intact, well-managed forest ecosystems, it is essential that we protect forests and the services they provide for people and wildlife (Choa 2012).
As we scale this work, human and wildlife communities that rely on intact, well-managed forest ecosystems will benefit around the world.
13. Example: Please walk us through one or two concrete examples that show how your solution will solve the problem you’re trying to address.
Using the bigleaf maple samples we collected in phase one, our partners at World Resources Institute have created a bioinformatics pipeline, and have begun analysis of the genetic variation within a species. The ensuing database also saw law enforcement action within a year of its compilation, demonstrating the timely nature of this work.
The western redcedar, coast redwood, and Alaska yellow-cedar genetic reference libraries (which we will complete in 2020 with 7,000 total samples) are already being used by three partners. Save the Redwoods League is linking genomic information with the environmental characteristics of each tree’s site to guide conservation and restoration strategies. The U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Lab are conducting analysis and using the libraries to track timber through supply chains, enforce anti-poaching regulations through the Lacey Act, empower responsible buyers, and improve sustainable resource management.
14. Marketplace: Who else is addressing this problem in your environment? How does your proposed project differ from these other approaches?
Government, NGOs, and citizen groups around the world are working to address the illegal timber trade by advocating for credible certifications of sustainable lumber, stronger trade regulations, and responsible forest practices. These groups require reference libraries of verified samples from standing trees to enable existing identification technologies. We will be successful when responsible parties are able to track the movement of timber through supply chains, enforce anti-poaching regulations, empower responsible buyers, and improve forest resource management around the world.
Groups like the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and others have expressed interest in expanding this work internationally in future phases. EIA is working in Eastern Europe, where law enforcement lacks these critical databases to link illegal timber harvest to corporate and state actors, who benefit from an opaque export market, undercutting the rule of law.
15. Awards & Recognitions: What awards or recognitions, if any, has the project received so far?
Our Timber Tracking project has received recognition and interest from global institutions working to ensure wood products have legal and sustainable origins, including leading forest legality advocacy groups, law enforcement, and Fortune 50 companies. Additionally, the success of this and other projects contributed to our Executive Director, Gregg Treinish, being named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2020.
16. Financial Sustainability – funding breakdown: Please list a quick breakdown of your funding, indicating an estimated percentage that comes from each source.
From our 2019 revenue, the breakdown of our funding is approximately:
Individual donations or gifts 50%
Earned income (fee-for-service) 10%
Corporate contributions 5%
Non-federal grants 3%
In-kind donations 3%
17. How do you plan to influence your field of work if you are a winner of the Act for Biodiversity Challenge? How would you invest the prize money to leverage your work?
We will invest in the successful completion of phase two of our Timber Tracking project, meeting our 7,000 sample goal, and providing a strong foundation from which to expand to additional species in the third phase. Ultimately, our vision is to grow our project to provide governments, law enforcement, and NGOs with the reference libraries needed to crack down on illegal logging on a massive scale.
And, as our volunteers collect samples, they become part of a large network of informed advocates for improving forest management and combating illegal logging. By continuing to share their stories, we will encourage widespread awareness of, engagement with, and advocacy against, illegal timber harvest.
18. Pitch-video (finalists only)