Ashland, Oregon, is the unexpected home of the only full-service forensic laboratory in the US dedicated to tracking illegally transported animals and plants.
In a report for Jefferson Public Radio last week, Erik Neumann discussed how the lab is employing a new strategy to get forensic tools to US ports to stop the illegal timber trade.
Forensic scientist Ed Espinoza stood inside a 9-metre-long trailer next to a whirring machine about the size of a commercial photocopier. The device is known as a DART time-of-flight mass spectrometer.
“This is the Ferrari of mass spectrometers,” Espinoza said. “It gives us very accurate data.”
The repurposed horse trailer serves as a mobile lab, stationed outside the US Fish and Wildlife Service forensic laboratory.
Personnel here assist the service in solving crimes by performing DNA analyses on illicitly traded plants and animals.
Espinoza explained that the mobile lab represents a new approach by forensic scientists to bring scientific tools to locations where they are most needed.
The Ashland lab is famous for its taxidermied animal collection. A tall warehouse on the premises houses everything from pangolins to tiger skins.
Espinoza has observed trends in illegal animal trade, such as elephant ivory, bear bile used in traditional Chinese medicine, and Russian beluga sturgeon caviar.
The latest trend, he notes, is timber from areas like Southeast Asia, Africa and Amazon.
In one of the lab’s libraries, drawers are stocked with samples of ebony and purple heart. Espinoza displayed a small bulnesia slab from Argentina, one of the hardest woods in the world.
“These samples specifically came from a large container leaving Madagascar,” he said, revealing a long metal drawer filled with rosewood slices.
Forensic experts utilize these collections to compare them to samples of possibly illegal timber.
A lack of reference material has existed in the past, according to Marigold Norman, director of research at World Forest ID, an organisation developing a geolocated database of wood commodities.
“It’s very difficult to say this timber came from this specific place unless you can compare it to something that actually came from there,” Norman said.
Cady Lancaster, co-founder of the Wood Identification and Screening Centre at the Ashland lab, asserts that forensic science helps enforce existing laws by identifying illicit logging operations.
“We know it’s making it into the US, but unless you can prove it, you can’t catch the bad guys,” Lancaster stated.
Illegal logging contributes to deforestation and biodiversity loss – including the African Cherry covered by Wood Central last week.
In addition, it finances organised crime, and as Espinoza pointed out, cheaper illegal logging undermines prices for sustainably managed timber.
Lancaster assisted in devising a method to analyse the “chemical fingerprints” of over 60,000 tree species worldwide. Using a mass spectrometer, scientists can weigh an unknown material’s molecules and match them to the lab’s database.
“We simply hold a wood sliver with tweezers and allow a 660-degree F helium ion stream to scorch the wood,” Lancaster explained. “That’s going to burn the wood away, release all the molecules into the air so they can be drawn into the mass spec. It happens almost instantaneously.”
Laws like the Lacey Act and the international CITES agreement (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife Fauna and Flora) aim to prevent protected tree species from being sold in the US.
In addition, a growing number of counties have legislated against illegal logging including Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, the UK as well as the EU through it’s Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade Action Plan (FLEGT).
However, without appropriate testing tools, customs authorities at entry ports cannot determine whether something is illegal. So, the chemists at the Ashland lab encountered a logistical issue. They possessed the testing technology in the form of a mass spectrometer, but Ashland is far from a major port where timber containers enter the US.
Enter Espinoza’s horse trailer. The modified trailer features a smooth ride to prevent damage to the mass spectrometer during transportation. The lab also added air suspension and hydraulic jacks to the truck’s bed to further minimize vibration.
“We want to make sure that it arrives in a way that it can work. We don’t want to destroy it from point A to point B,” Espinoza explained.
The mobile lab also contains a digital microscope for forensic scientists to examine wood sample anatomy and import permits to check for forgery. The equipment and modifications cost approximately $600,000 (USD).
Deploying the trailer from Ashland to ports of entry will be beneficial for customs agents.
“With a scientist on hand who knows the statistics, who knows what part of the wood to ID, they can bring it right back to the trailer, and get an answer in 10 minutes. Of course, that’s going to be very powerful,” Lancaster said.