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Chipping Away at Tree Poaching

Roughly $1 million worth of wood products is stolen from state and federal lands in Washington each month

By Alex FryerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / August 13, 1996


"Welcome to my office," bellows Lar Douglas, throwing open the door to his dinosaur-sized rig.

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The off-road vehicle, unmarked except for a rear window sticker that reads "Klingon Warrior Academy," takes Mr. Douglas high into the snow-capped hills and thickly wooded valleys of the Sultan Basin in northwest Washington.

Along the winding gravel paths that cut scars into the peaks, Douglas parks his four-by-four "office," lifts powerful binoculars to his eyes, and waits.

One of only six timber investigators for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, Douglas patrols the forests against the increasing number of thieves and vandals who steal saplings, underbrush, and trees from public land.

"People have discovered you can make a lot of money in wood products," he says. "When they leave the pavement, it's the wild West again."

Ripping trees from the ground might not sound like an easy way to make a buck, but there is big money on the black market for all kinds of forest products.

Roughly $1 million is stolen from state and federal lands each month, according to state officials who started tracking such thefts a few years ago.

To get tough on the nurseries and cedar mills that buy suspect wood, county prosecutors in Washington are using state racketeering laws originally devised to put organized crime figures behind bars.

Last month, the latest defendant pleaded guilty for his part in stealing state cedar and selling it to a mill on the Washington coast.

Five people, including the mill's owner, have been charged under state law with trafficking in stolen timber.

"We're barely making a dent in the potential casework," said Bill Steele, chief investigator for the Department of Natural Resources. "There's plenty of job security for us. There's never a lack of cases."

Cedar trees are one of the most prized trees growing on state and federal land, said Douglas. Frequently, poachers will fell a tree, load it on a truck and wait until nightfall to drive to the lumber mill.

But that's not always the scenario. Near the Canadian border, 100 cedar trees were cut so the fragrant tips of the branches could be used for making potpourri.

Cedar isn't the only species fetching high prices in the underground market. Mountain hemlock often is sold at nurseries for about $1,000 a piece.

Poachers can expect a payoff of about $300 for every hemlock stolen from state lands.

Other popular targets include bear grass, Douglas fir, and fire maple. During the holiday season, poachers sometimes cut down truckloads full of young saplings to sell as Christmas trees.

The trade in stolen wood products is so widespread that Steele claims 2 out of 5 large nurseries knowingly buy goods from timber bandits.

"I am confident that every one of the nurseries knows about this," he said. "The price is so high, they don't make the fact that it's illegal a high priority in their decision to buy the product."

But Wally Kerwin, owner of Swanson's Nursery in Seattle, says the well-established nurseries always check to see if a vendor has a permit to harvest on state land.

"We only buy from people who are licensed to dig," says Mr. Kerwin. "I think in the outlying areas [buying stolen products] may happen with the smaller nurseries. But I haven't heard or seen anything about it in years."

There are generally two kinds of people that steal forest products from public land, according to investigators.