What is “gate wood?” Generally gate wood refers to logs brought to a sawmill that were not pre-ordered, purchased as standing timber or ordered under contract by the mill. Usually offered by independent loggers who have harvested small private tracts, gate wood is often purchased with the exact origin unknown.

Gate wood is coming under increasing scrutiny as the U.S. looks internally at illegal logging issues. Because an estimated 90 percent of the wood used by the industry comes off private lands, logging is actually fairly unregulated in America. Timber harvest is not as controlled in the U.S. as it is in many other major timber-producing nations. There are state laws that will govern logging near waterways or try to limit other damage, but on a whole, private owners of forest are largely free to choose when and how to harvest. This means a great deal of material will enter the supply chain with little documentation or evidence of legality. (For more information on supply routes, this short paper takes a good look at the timber procurement system in the U.S.)

The vast majority of U.S. wood is legally harvested of course, but if illegal material is going to slip into the U.S. commercial trade, gate wood is the likely entry point. Gate wood was specifically called out as a point of concern in a 2008 New York state report on illegal logging: “Loggers are not always bonded or mills and timber buyers do not always verify the legality of their gate wood. … Sawmills should know the source of purchased logs (often referred to as “gate wood”) and refuse to deal with known timber thieves.”

Recognizing this as a risk, SFI has looked to control how their certified operators handle gate wood—while usually not eliminating it completely, companies must establish specific policies for the purchase of gate wood. FSC would not allow gate wood to be considered certified, but might permit gate wood to enter their supply chain through the “controlled wood” system, where again, tight restrictions are placed on material from any type of unknown source.

One of the challenges of gate wood is the fact that many timber tracts are registered through the “metes and bounds survey” system. On these deeds, boundary descriptions can be based on streams, old trees, rock walls and other factors that have changed over the years, including blazes that have been grown over, wood stakes that have rotted, or stone piles that have fallen over. Wikipedia offers up a great sample description of a deed using an old metes and bounds survey:

"beginning with a corner at the intersection of two stone walls near an apple tree on the north side of Muddy Creek road one mile above the junction of Muddy and Indian Creeks, north for 150 rods to the end of the stone wall bordering the road, then northwest along a line to a large standing rock on the corner of the property now or formerly belonging to John Smith, thence west 150 rods to the corner of a barn near a large oak tree, thence south to Muddy Creek road, thence down the side of the creek road to the starting point."

North for 150 rods? For more on rods and chains and other fine explanations of how we came up with an acre (it’s easy: an acre is 43,560 square feet which is 1 chain x 10 chains…and of course a chain is 66 feet and it takes 80 chains to make a mile) as a meaningful measurement, see this article.

Anyway, as you can imagine, it is quite easy to go over a forest boundary line when you are looking for an apple tree that is long gone. This site explains how to do a survey with the opening paragraph noting that good boundaries are vital to controlling timber theft.

Clearly illegal wood, be it deliberately stolen timber or accidentally procured over a boundary line, can enter the supply chain through our industry’s open gates. As the world becomes more and more focused on eliminating illegal wood, our gates may have to become a bit more selective in what comes through undocumented.

Elizabeth Baldwin has over 20 years of international wood sourcing experience. Very widely traveled, her résumé's "Special Skills" section includes "the ability to eat anything from raw horse to deep-fried scorpion." She serves as Metropolitan Hardwood Flooring's (metrofloors.com) ECO (Environmental Compliance Officer) and deals daily with the "green alphabet soup" of today's industry: FSC, CARB, LEED, and much more. She blogs for Hardwood Floors on all things green (and, as she says, " 'grey' and 'blue' and almost every color except 'black and white.' Nothing in this world is black and white, particularly not 'green issues.'")