World Forest ID (WFID) has an ambitious target. Its aim is to establish a geo-referenced wood sample library and associated database to allow use of science-based traceability techniques to police trade in the world’s top 200 commercial and most vulnerable timber species. It’s a vast undertaking, requiring samples to be taken across the target species’ international growing range, a total of 300- 500,000. According to WFID chief executive Phil Guillery, however, such a resource would deliver a significant blow against illegal logging and for maintenance of the global forest resource, its biodiversity and critical role in climate regulation.

The project is already well under way. WFID is undertaking geo-referenced sample collection in 21 countries. In conjunction, partner laboratories around the world are using such techniques as stable isotope ratio analysis, DART mass spectrometry and digital imaging to record the samples’ chemical and anatomical profiles, each unique to species and location.

In the latest development, WFID is partnering with the US Forest Service International Program (USFSIP), the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) and others with the goal of creating a sample collection and associated timber identification and traceability databases covering the entire US hardwood forest. This, it is felt, could become a model for equivalent national projects globally.

WFID was conceived following discussions between various organisations on the challenge of using latest material analysis technologies to monitor the timber trade.

“The main obstacle was that, while wood sample collections existed, they weren’t geo-referenced. As a result, they could not be used with science-based analysis techniques to prove timber origin, which can be key in prosecuting illegal timber traffickers,” said Mr Guillery, previously supply chain integrity director at the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). “However, within our group we decided we had the knowledge and resources to address this problem.”

Consequently a consortium came together to form WFID. This comprised the World Resources Institute, the FSC and the USFSIP (WFID’s main funder to date). Also on board are UK experts in stable isotope ratio analysis (SIRA) Agroisolab, and Kew Gardens in London. The latter is designated curator of the WFID wood sample collection, receiving funding for the work from the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

WFID’s sample collection programme to date is already extensive, extending from north, central and south America, to Europe, West Africa, Asia (including China) and the Pacific.

Collectors include employees of consortium members and local partner organisations, plus individual researchers. They gather samples of sapwood, heartwood, cambium, bark and leaves. Via GPS, the WFID collectors’ app then registers the location of where the sample comes from to an accuracy of 8-16m.

Subsequently the material – and WFID is also looking at forest-risk commodities such as soy, coffee and cocoa and biofuels – is dispatched to Kew. As well as undertaking some of the work itself, it then sends sections of the wood for analysis at Agroisolab and the USFSIP’s Wood Identification and Screening Centre. Besides SIRA and DART mass spectrometry, additional methods being used include digital imaging and DNA analysis. With SourceCertain in Australia, WFID is also investigating use of trace element analysis and, longer term, sees promise in using genetics.

The end result is a bank of irrefutable scientific data, effectively the wood samples’ chemical and structural ‘fingerprints’, identifying species and origin. Held at the University of Connecticut, this database can then be accessed by ISO-certified public and private testing laboratories worldwide for cross-referencing with analysis of traded timber to verify species and sustainable, legal provenance.

Phil Guillery says WFID’s sample collection and data will help authorities and the timber trade “overcome barriers to increasing mainstream use of scientific analysis techniques to rein in the lucrative and destructive trade in illegal forest products”. But he’s keen to stress that it’s also a resource for highlighting what is “good wood as well as bad”. Thus it can be employed by the legitimate timber trade to provide customers cast-iron assurance that its wood is legally and sustainably sourced and its supply chains are deforestation-free.

This, in fact, is the goal of the new WFID project with the US hardwood industry. Working with the state university and backed by USFSIP, World Forest ID is initially undertaking sample collection and analysis of US white oak and tulipwood in Kentucky.

Once this pilot is complete, the objective is to roll out the process across the entire US hardwood forest to create a national identification and traceability database for the 12 lead American export species.

This work will help combat illegal traders who pass off timber from other sources – and other species – as the most popular American varieties. US white oak is a particular target for this.

At the same time, the US industry will be able to use the species and traceability data in conjunction with existing tools, studies and analysis demonstrating the legality and sustainability of the US hardwood resource. These include the AHEC website’s Interactive Forest Map. Based on US Forest Inventory Analysis data, this shows hardwood forest, growth, timber removal, species distribution and more.

AHEC has also developed a life cycle analysis tool, which specifiers and buyers can use to calculate carbon and other environmental impacts of shipping American hardwoods to any destination worldwide.

Additionally, buyers and specifiers can refer to the AHEC-commissioned Seneca Creek report on the US hardwood industry, billed as the most comprehensive legality and sustainability risk analysis study ever undertaken in the international timber sector.

“With the data we already have, WFID’s geo-referenced sampling and wood analysis will give us the tools to link timber production to demonstrably sustainable forest,” said AHEC European director David Venables. “As its approach is science-based, it’s also not prone to the error, misuse or fraud to which some verification systems are vulnerable.”

AHEC executive director Mike Snow added that with WFID, the US had the potential to create an “international template for large-scale, industry-wide use of science-based traceability in the forest sector”.

AHEC and others have requested the US Congress for an appropriation for WFID’s America-wide project and Mr Guillery says it could be completed in as little as two years. He’s also confident WFID’s ambition for a global timber sample collection and wood analysis database is achievable.

“We’ve demonstrated our approach works worldwide, collecting and geo-referencing samples in some challenging environments,” he said. “We believe our international project can be completed in a decade.”