Supply Chain Sleuths: Partnership Helps Preserve Integrity of Certified Forest Products

Recent action by the Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC) to suspend a major charcoal producer in Europe is one outcome of the FSC and Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) partnership. This collaboration aims at using forensic wood science to investigate supply chainsAlex C. Wiedenhoeft, Research Botanist and Team Leader in FPL’s Center for Wood Anatomy Research (CWAR), has led the CWAR side of a multi-year, award-winning research cooperation between FSC and FPL. Wiedenhoeft and his team conducted the forensic analysis of the contested charcoal.

Specimens of lump charcoal displayed on a specimen submission form.

At issue was whether charcoal appearing on the retail market with the FSC label was in fact sourced from FSC-certified forests.  “Working with investigators within the FSC supply chain integrity team, our forensic results about the botanical origin of the charcoal showed that the species composition of the charcoal was or was not consistent with the species claim,” said Wiedenhoeft.  “As with most forensic applications of botany, the bulk of the work is done by the real-world investigators, whether law enforcement or industrial auditors. Forensic wood science steps in at the evidence analysis phase to give the investigators solid data to inform their investigation.”

Continue reading

Creative Learning: Forensic Botany Class Goes from Science to Sculpture

In the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) Department of Botany’s Forensic Botany class, Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) research botanist Alex Wiedenhoeft gives his students full creative license when it comes to their final projects.

“They could even do an interpretive dance.” said Wiedenhoeft, “Although they’d have to interpret it for me, since I’m a botanist.”

Undergraduate student Jennifer Baccam appreciated the freedom of the assignment and chose an interesting medium to demonstrate what she had learned in Wiedenhoeft’s class: sculpture.

Jennifer Baccam’s sculpture of FPL’s Arthur Koehler.

Baccam is majoring in plant biology and when she heard about Wiedenhoeft’s forensic botany class, her curiosity was piqued.

“I love botany and have done lots of field work,” said Baccam. “This class seemed like an interesting way to meet the requirement of taking a laboratory class.”

In giving thought to her final project, Baccam wanted to know how forensic botany came about. When she began to research the topic, Baccam discovered it all began with a scientist named Arthur Koehler from none other than the Forest Products Laboratory.

Koehler was the chief wood technologist at FPL in 1932 when Charles Lindbergh’s infant son was kidnapped and a wooden ladder was nearly the only evidence at the scene of the crime. Koehler was asked to participate in the investigation and eventually testified in the trial. Based partly on Koehler’s testimony, Bruno Hauptmann was convicted of the crime, and subsequently executed.

At the time, no one had heard of an expert witness in wood. In fact, one of Hauptmann’s lawyers stated the following in objection to a question posed to Koehler: “We say that there is no such animal known among men as an expert on wood; that it is not a science that has been recognized by the courts; that it is not in a class with handwriting experts or with ballistic experts. But this is no science, this is merely a man who has had a lot of experience in examining trees, who knows the barks on trees and a few things like that.”

Koehler of course balked at this statement, and it was stricken from the record as the court deemed Koehler was indeed “qualified as an expert upon the subject matter.”

As Baccam read Koehler’s testimony, she found it plenty apparent that he was confident in his skills and abilities as a wood expert, and he stood behind what he had learned in examining the ladder as evidence.

Forensic Botany student Jennifer Baccam.

“Koehler came across as a larger-than-life personality,” said Baccam. This observation is apparent in her sculpture, in which Koehler’s bust is looming over the other aspects of the case that are represented, including the ladder itself.

Baccam’s curiosity about forensic botany continues to lead her down a new path, as she is set to begin working in FPL’s Center for Wood Anatomy Research with Wiedenhoeft soon, and will complete her senior thesis at FPL beginning in the fall.

“I’m lucky to have Alex as my mentor,” says Baccam. “Since the beginning of the Forensic Botany course he has helped me further realize that research is truly my passion. My perspective of my future is much less uncertain now.”

To learn more about Wiedenheoft’s forensic botany course, which he co-teaches with UW Professor Sara Hotchkiss, see this feature story from UW-Madison.

FPL Researchers Honored by Forest Stewardship Council

The Forest Stewardship Council, the world’s leading forest certification system, announced its 2017 FSC Leadership Awards in a celebration at Greenbuild. Recognizing enduring commitment to forest conservation, the award shines a light on people, companies and buildings that are breaking new ground and promoting responsible forest management.

The Forest Products Laboratory’s Center for Wood Anatomy Research was honored with a FSC Leadership Award “for applying state-of-the-art forensic wood science to verify the accuracy of FSC claims on more than 1,000 products annually.” Continue reading

Front Page News! FPL's "Tree Detective" is Cover Story Material

Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) botanist Alex Wiedenhoeft has a fascinating career. Whether he’s using forensic botany to aid law enforcement, finding new ways to extract DNA from wood, or fact-checking certified wood products, he always has an interesting story to tell.

Isthmus, a weekly newspaper here in Madison, Wisconsin, agrees, and featured Wiedenhoeft and his work to curb illegal logging as this week’s cover story.

Cover-WiedenhoeftAlex-crCenterForWoodAnatomyResearch-08112016

FPL botanist Alex Wiedenhoeft

If you thought illegal logging was just a problem affecting trees and forests, think again. The article explains that “when law enforcement agents capture a shipment of illegal timber, they also often find illegally captured wildlife, illegal drugs, weapons and slaves” and that “revenue from illegally harvested timber has been linked to armed conflicts around the world.”

To find out how Wiedenhoeft works to combat these disastrous consequences, and learn about some of the wild cases he’s worked on over the years, read the full article at Isthmus.com.

All In a Day’s Work: Identifying Wood Species in Antique Horse Hames

Mike Wiemann, a botanist in the Forest Products Laboratory’s (FPL) Center for Wood Anatomy Research, has a special skill: identifying wood species, often with just a quick look through a tiny hand lens he carries in his pocket.

Mike Wiemann, FPL botanist, prepares a sample for identification.

Mike Wiemann, FPL botanist, prepares a sample for identification.

While most of us simply see wood, Wiemann can recognize varying species by looking at the end grain and evaluating the size and arrangement of the tissue components. And he did just that recently for a visitor to the Lab with a unique collection.

Willis Parker, a retired veterinarian, has an extensive collection of hames, two curved pieces of iron or wood forming (or attached to) the collar of a draft horse. Parker has collected nearly 400 hames over several decades, and is working to clean, photograph, identify wood species, and name the makers to preserve the history of their use.

Willis Parker shows Wiemann his hame collection.

Willis Parker (left) shows Wiemann his hame collection.

Interestingly, Wiemann happened to know what a hame was thanks to his college days. “In 1964, a requirement of the Intro to Forestry class I took my freshman year was to memorize and identify the parts of a harness,” said Wiemann. “I never thought I’d use that information again!”

With special permission from Wiemann (whose skills are in high demand), Parker brought 22 hames to FPL one sunny afternoon for wood identification. Some were well-worn and simple in design, used for work horses that pulled plows; others were painted and ornate, used when pulling carriages for wealthy passengers.

Parker laid out the pieces of wood, most dating from the early 1900s, and Wiemann got to work. What he found were hames made from ash, beech, red oak, white oak, hard maple, and elm.

Parker carefully tagged and labeled each hame after Wiemann announced the species, and he thanked Wiemann repeatedly for helping gather such useful information about his collection.

Wiemann was more than happy to help, as here at FPL, public service really is all in a day’s work.

hames5

Wiemann looks at a wood hame through his hand lens to identify the species.