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Illegal Harvesting of Forest Greens

Sam Eaton

It’s Christmas tradition to bring a little bit of the outside in. Offices and homes are decorated with fragrant Christmas trees, wreathes, and cedar boughs. Demand for these forest greens is growing. But as KUOW’s Sam Eaton reports, the harvesting is often done illegally.

THE EMPLOYEES AT EVERGREEN WHOLESALE FLORIST IN SEATTLE PUT IN A LOT OF OVERTIME IN THE MONTHS LEADING UP TO CHRISTMAS. STARTING AT TWO IN THE MORNING THEY LOAD TRUCKS WITH HUNDREDS OF FEET OF CEDAR GARLANDS AND CHRISTMAS GREENS TO BE SHIPPED ACROSS THE STATE. This is our main cooler that the customers are allowed to shop in and everything in here’s for sale. MITCH MISTRIAL IS THE COMPANY’S BUYER. HIS JOB IS TO MAKE SURE HE HAS ENOUGH TREE CLIPPINGS TO SUPPLY THE STATE’S FLORISTS, SUPERMARKETS, AND PARTY DECORATORS. We carry the mixed wreathes that are decorated with the pinecones. In Christmas greens we have the noble fir, prince’s pine, silver fir, and cedar. MISTRIAL SHOWS ME HALF A DOZEN BINS PILED HIGH WITH FRESH GARLANDS AND TREE BRANCHES. AND THEY’RE ALL HARVESTED FROM OUR OWN BACK YARD. (SFX: cross fade cooler with footsteps) The Pacific Northwest grows some of the best stuff in the world and you’re seeing it being harvested right where were standing. MARK SAVAGE IS WITH THE DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCES. HE SELLS PERMITS TO PEOPLE WHO WANT TO CUT BRANCHES FROM TREES IN STATE FORESTS. PLACES LIKE “EVERGREEN WHOLESALE FLORIST” BUY THEIR GREENS FROM LICENSED GROWERS, BUT SAVAGE SAYS AS MANY AS HALF OF THE TREE CUTTINGS YOU SEE AT STORES AND CHRISTMAS TREE STANDS ARE HARVESTED ILLEGALLY. TODAY HE’S ON THE OLYMPIC PENISULA NEAR HOOD CANAL CHECKING FOR TREE POACHING. What I’m looking for right now is a trail. Trail, rubber bands sort of indicate where the harvesting activity is going on, because many of the times they’ll have a small path leading way back and you’ll get an awful lot of the harvesting away from the road where you can’t see. WE STEP OFF A WELL-WORN LOGGING ROAD AND COME UPON AN AREA RAVAGED BY POACHERS. (laughs) Yeah that doesn’t look too good. That’s a good example of a red cedar that’s ah, what, about three quarters of it has been cut leaving virtually no branches all the way to the top. THERE ARE SEVERAL MORE STRIPPED CEDARS NEARBY. SAVAGE SAYS THE TREES WILL LIKELY LIVE, BUT WHAT HE WORRIES ABOUT IS THE OVERALL HEALTH OF THE FOREST AS MORE AND MORE PEOPLE TRY TO MAKE A BUCK SELLING ITS PRODUCTS. SAVAGE ALSO WORRIES ABOUT THE LABOR PRACTICES OF THE THIEVES. HE CALLS THEM COYOTE OPERATIONS THAT RELY ON ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS TO DO THEIR WORK. These folks are taken advantage of, they’re paid horrible wages. They put out in the forest with minimal clothing at times, and unfortunately I’ve seen some of these folks working in light snow, wet snow with tennis shoes and sweat pants on. And it’s a really bad operation. POACHING THIS YEAR APPEARS TO BE DOWN SO FAR. BUT INVESTIGATORS WON’T KNOW FOR SURE UNTIL SPRING WHEN FOREST WORKERS RETURN TO THE WOODS. AND WITH TOUGH ECONOMIC TIMES AHEAD, SAVAGE EXPECTS THE PROBLEM TO CONTINUE WITH PEOPLE LESS WILLING TO PAY THE PERMIT FEES FOR LEGAL HARVESTING. (SFX: starting truck and driving) AS WE DRIVE OUT OF THE FOREST AND ONTO THE MAIN HIGHWAY, WE PASS ROADSIDE CHRISTMAS TREE STANDS, SELLING EVERYTHING FROM TREES, TO WREATHES, TO CEDAR GARLANDS. THESE SMALL BUSINESSES ONLY SCRATCH THE SURFACE OF WHAT HAS BECOME A HUNDRED MILLION DOLLAR A YEAR FOREST PRODUCTS INDUSTRY. THAT’S WHY STOPPING THE POACHING IS SO DIFFICULT. SAVAGE SAYS WHAT IT ALL BOILS DOWN TO IS SIMPLE ECONOMICS. There’s a huge demand for the product and the demand will be met, and how that demand will be met professionally, responsibly is the goal that forest managers here in Western Washington are working together to do it. There’s no silver bullet to this, it’s a tough issue to tackle. IT’S ALSO TOUGH FOR SAVAGE AND HIS FELLOW INSPECTORS TO KEEP AN EYE ON EVERY TREE. THE AGENCY HAS ONLY 10 OFFICERS TO PATROL THE STATE’S 2-MILLION ACRES OF PUBLIC FORESTS. SAM EATON, KUOW, 94.9, PUBLIC RADIO.