Smokey the Bear showed up at the Burrill Timber Company the other day with body armor and a sidearm.
To be specific, about a dozen armed United States Forest Service officers arrived unannounced to examine documents and computer files at the southern Oregon company now suspected of stealing timber from national forest land.
Company officials deny the charges, which involve cutting trees that should have been left standing while failing to log lesser-grade trees - as was required under the contract on the Rogue River National Forest.
The legal drama here is not unique. From Maine to California, owners of public and private forests are fighting woods rustlers who turn valuable trees into easy cash.
In some cases, it involves a few high-value hardwoods snatched in the middle of the night - as happened recently in Leelanau County, Mich., where a man was fined $300 and sentenced to 10 days in jail for stealing six maples. Or Maine, where state forestry officials get some 1,000 timber-theft cases a year, most involving no more than a few thousand dollars.
In other cases, millions of dollars worth of timber has been stripped by more sophisticated thieves who move logging boundary markers, steal the special paint used to mark trees approved for cutting, or tamper with the hand-held computers and scales used to set the value of logs.
No one knows for sure how much timber is stolen from the 192 million forested acres owned by all US taxpayers. Former Forest Service chief Dale Robertson once guessed it could be worth as much as $100 million a year.
"It's a priority for us," says Kim Thorsen, assistant director of the Forest Service's law-enforcement and investigative arm. Last year, she says, the agency pursued 134 alleged felonies and "serious misdemeanors" - those involving more than just a load of firewood or Christmas trees.
But just how vigorously the Forest Service is pursuing such cases is a subject of much controversy these days.
Six current and former Forest Service investigators charge the agency with disbanding a special timber-theft task force and ignoring cases involving major companies. In a case filed under the federal whistle-blower protection law, they allege that the Forest Service prevented them from doing their job, ordered them to relocate, and in some instances harassed them - charges the agency is fighting before a federal administrative law judge.
Before it was disbanded in 1995, the task force pursued (and in at least one case successfully prosecuted) cases involving millions of dollars each. Now, the typical Forest Service timber-theft case amounts to only about $1,500, says Thomas Devine of the Government Accountability Project, the organization representing the six.
Private forest watchdogs are frustrated by the lack of information made public on such cases, and in 1996, the United States Agriculture Department's inspector-general found fault with the Forest Service's timber-theft program.
In response to this official critique and to whistle-blowers' allegations, Ms. Thorsen says the agency has tightened up investigating and prosecuting procedures. For example, "We're doing a better job of training our people to recognize and detect suspicious behavior," she says.
Others say the problem of responding to timber theft goes to more fundamental attitudes and historical practices - both in logging communities and in the large federal bureaucracy charged with managing national forests.
One such observer is Michael Pendleton, a professor at the University of Washington and former police officer who grew up working in the lumber mill his family still owns in Eugene, Ore.
Dr. Pendleton, who has conducted years of field study related to forest practices, says swiping a tree or a truckload now and then has "always been part of the logging culture." This is especially true, he says, in rural areas of the West where some people feel Uncle Sam - especially bureaucrats back east - have no right to make rules for those who've lived on the land for generations.
Another problem, he says, is that local employees of the Forest Service become part of the communities in which they work. Even though most are dedicated to fulfilling their charge as public land stewards, he adds, their desire to be good neighbors can "create huge blinders" when it comes to carrying out the law.
And more recently, he notes, the Forest Service has come under attack by conservative Western lawmakers who've threatened the agency's budget if it continues to put environmental protection ahead of "getting out the cut" on national forests.
All of this, says Pendleton, has created a "huge collision of values" in an agency that has become "highly politicized." Meanwhile, illegal logging operations continue to be a problem across much of the country.