Chipping Away at Tree Poaching

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

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

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.

The people who drive trucks into the forests to steal cedar - "cedar rats," as Steele calls them - tend to be men in their 30s. Most have had some experience in the forests, either as loggers or outdoorsmen.

But cedar rats are far outnumbered by the marauding bands of individuals and families who roam the forests for rhododendrons, bark, ferns, and bear grass - products that end up in a nursery or floral business rather than at a mill. Some types of bark are even sold as aphrodisiacs abroad.

The state Department of Natural Resources manages about 2.85 million acres of land, and patrolling such an immense area is a constant challenge.

Douglas is a sort of "bush cop" who can detect subtle changes in his neighborhood as well as any traditional beat cop.

"If I see an area where they've been working, I'll watch it. If I hear a power saw or see a truck, I'm going to photograph them before we go in," said Douglas. "We may confiscate their load, their trucks,and their power saws. It really hurts these guys when you take their power saws. That's the tool of the trade."

Last year, Douglas and a sheriff's deputy tested using a helicopter to spot illegal logging. In the first hour, they wrote $5,000 worth of citations.

The possible charges for timber theft range from third-degree misdemeanor to first-degree felony, depending on the amount of the wood. The maximum penalty includes some jail time and a fine of three times the value of the stolen material.

Jail isn't a likely destination for poachers, however. "The courts are so packed with murderers, I guess the people stealing cedar don't rate very high on the list of cases the prosecutors want to pursue," said Steele.

And theft isn't the only problem for investigators like Douglas.

Stopping his vehicle beside a clump of trees, Douglas hops out and points to a group of stumps that look like they've been hacked off with a blunt instrument. But the trees weren't felled by an ax; they were cut down by a hail of bullets and shot gun shells.

"I've heard a lot of automatic weapons fire out here," he said. "Gangsters come up here to train. They come out here and shoot and go back to the city."

Besides the half-dozen trees that lie ruined by the side of the road, Douglas says the entire 15-acre patch of fir trees is ruined.

Stray bullets have lodged into almost every tree. If a saw blade hits one of those bullets in the mill, it can shatter the blade and possibly injure or kill the operator.

As a result, the Department of Natural Resources - and ultimately the state's school construction fund that is financed by timber sales - has lost about $300,000 in potential revenue from this one stand of trees.

It isn't an isolated case, said Douglas, citing damage from gunfire as a major problem on statThe Department of Natural Resources is closing more and more state forests to off-road vehicles to prevent theft and vandalism. While unpopular with hikers, an iron gate is often the only way to stop the pillaging of natural resources.

"But people grumble," says Steele. We get more complaints about shutting down land access than we get about theft off of state lands."

Tightening access to timberland seems to have helped limit the problem on private land. Weyerhaeuser Company, the state's largest private landowner, has experienced some timber theft, but "with a lot of expense and security we've managed to control it," says company spokesman Frank Mendizabal.

Even if vast tracts of publicly owned forest lands are put off-limits, Steele says timber heists will continue: "Theft will shift from Weyerhaeuser land to state land to small, private landowners. It just won't go away."

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