Mosses of the Pacific Northwest

Demand for fir boughs, mosses of the Pacific Northwest, and other “specialized forest products” used as bouquet fillers have spawned a multimillion-dollar international black market.


| May/June 2013



Trees in the Olympic National Park's Hall of Mosses

These specialized forest products used to just be the weeds and branches we tripped over while hiking through the woods. Now it's bigger money than you can imagine.

Photo By John Walker

The transmission of our aging state-issue F-150 pickup wails in protest as we buck and roll along the U.S. Forest Service road. From the passenger seat, I squint at a dash-mounted GPS unit while Washington Department of Natural Resources enforcement officer Jared Eison steers around a Douglas fir limb jutting out onto the pocked gravel surface. “You hear that buzzing behind your seat?” he says. “It’s the 140-watt linear kicking in to boost the radio signal. But we’re too far out for that to help. This is a no-man’s-land. No cell phone, no radio, no communications. I’m about the only guy, with the exception of Fish and Wildlife, who patrols this area.”  

Though I struggle to track our precise location, I know that we are close to the Queets River trailhead, the most isolated entry to Olympic National Park, which is the rainiest place in the Lower 48. Some 40 miles to the north is Forks, a formerly bustling logging outpost that’s reinvented itself as a summer pilgrimage site for teenage tourists eager to witness the drizzly inspiration for Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series.

Most visitors stay only long enough for a dayhike in Olympic National Park or a brief vampire tour. But another variety of visitor has come to this far corner of the Pacific Northwest to pillage its forest bounty: moss, salal, cascara, fir boughs, cedar shake, and other temperate rainforest plants, known collectively as “specialized forest products.” As a result of strong demand from the European floral trade, these bouquet fillers have become a $350-million-per-year industry.

Carefully managed, this harvesting could have a small ecological footprint. But alongside the legal industry is a massive shadow operation of poachers, whose reckless extraction wreaks havoc on the forest and costs taxpayers millions. What irks law enforcement most? It’s damn near impossible to catch the bad guys.

 

Officer Eison parks his rig on a lumpy pullout, rolls down his window, and inhales. “This is my office,” he says. “It has a different view every day.” The season’s first snow has yet to fall, and the forest flaunts a psychedelic, disco-green winter palette. He gestures to the Remington 870 12-gauge and the Colt M4 semiautomatic in the gun rack between the seats. “The last time I called for backup, it took 2 hours and 45 minutes. So these are my two backups.”