Mosses of the Pacific Northwest

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Photo By John Walker
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.

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

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.”

In these hinterlands, Eison has
good reason to be packing heat. In 2008, his counterpart from the Forest
Service, Officer Kristine Fairbanks, was murdered while investigating a
suspicious vehicle on the north end of the Olympic Peninsula. While her killing
wasn’t related to the specialized forest products trade, many illegal
traffickers are armed and dangerous. A few years ago, Eison says, an illegal
salal picker threatened him with a machete. “I had to pull my gun. He thought
about it for a second and then took off running. I never did catch the guy.”

Salal is a leafy shrub favored by
Dutch florists, and the Olympic Peninsula is its prime territory. A 2002 memo
in the files of the state’s Department of Labor and Industries, acquired by the
public-interest website Endgame Research, estimated that 27 million pounds of
salal from this region were exported to Europe
each year, with a sales value of more than $100 million. The state’s Department
of Natural Resources, private landowners, and packinghouses, called “brush
sheds,” issue permits validated by local sheriff’s departments to legally
harvest forest products, but many choose to forgo the $400 license. They bet
that getting caught red-handed is unlikely–not unreasonably, considering that
Eison’s patrol area spans 357,000 acres and three counties.

Given the government’s limited
enforcement resources, some landowners and brush sheds have resorted to
deploying private contractors to patrol for poachers. Jim Furubotten is
president of For-Con Services, a timberland security company based in Aberdeen with a long list of Pacific
Northwest clients. “In the old days, I’d just grab my pack and hit
the mountains when I wasn’t working,” he says. “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.”

To see it, Furubotten says, all you
have to do is “hide your truck on a quiet spot out there and wait. All of a
sudden the sides of the roads just come alive with the shadows and the sounds
of brush being pulled to the roadside. It’s a little freaky if you’ve never
seen it before.”

The big brush sheds on the Olympic
Peninsula lease land from the Forest Service or timber companies and buy forest
products from pickers with permits. The greenery is then sold to floral
wholesalers and distributors. Legitimate sheds harvest in natural cycles:
Salal, for example, can be sustainably gathered if patches are rotated every
three to five years. Poachers, though, have no compunction about over-picking
or off-season harvesting, which can kill off patches altogether.

One group suffering from the
rapacious harvesting is the Quinault tribe, whose reservation lies southwest of
the national park. James Smith, a Native American who worked as a resource
protection officer on the Quinault Reservation through 2010, says that quality
bear grass for traditional basket weaving can no longer be found. “Illegal
harvesters are pulling it up by the root, snipping what they want, and leaving
the rest to die,” he says. “We’ve caught them out there killing 40 to 80 acres
at a time per season.” Ten million pounds of bear grass is exported from Washington to Europe

In 2010, an elk hunter stumbled
upon poachers taking 40,000 pounds of western white pine boughs for holiday
wreathsdestroying two multi-acre stands of trees in the process. Legitimate
harvesters encourage tree growth by leaving 30 percent of the upper-crown
boughs uncut. But these poachers took all the branches, killing the trees.

Scientists still know very little
about rainforest moss ecosystems, says Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Gathering
. “Mosses of the Pacific Northwest are
like coral reefs of the forest,” she says. “The biodiversity is incredible.”
When mosses are stripped from the ecosystem, they can take decades to come
back–along with the microorganisms and invertebrates they shelter. “There is
such a thing as old-growth moss,” she says. The amount of moss harvested from
the Pacific Northwest and sold to the floral
industry annually, usually as soil cover for potted plants, could be in the
tens of millions of pounds.

In addition to its environmental
impact, poaching also exploits its laborers, many of whom are undocumented
immigrants. “These people are dropped off with a can of tuna and bottle of
Gatorade for the entire day,” says Larry Raedel, the law enforcement chief of
the Department of Natural Resources. In another 2002 memo acquired by Endgame
Research, Washington’s labor department estimated that out of 3,000 salal and
bear grass harvesters in the state, “realistically, less than 100 are covered”
by state labor regulations.

Last May, 43-year-old migrant brush
picker Benjamin Roldan Salinas was stopped by a Forest Service officer while
transporting salal near Forks, where he’d lived for 12 years. After the officer
called Border Patrol for translation assistance, Salinas
fled, attempting to escape by jumping into the frigid Sol Duc River. A search party discovered his
body downstream three weeks later. “We typically just want to do our job,
confiscate the product, issue the appropriate citation, and move on,” says Clallam County sheriff’s sergeant Brian King.
“But the challenge is that many brush pickers are of questionable immigration
status and can’t discern between the police, Department of Natural Resources,
Forest Service, and Border Patrol agents working in the area.”

Most are willing to pay a citation
but want to avoid Border Patrol.

In the Queets Valley,
Officer Eison ticks off the clues he uses to find thieves. “I’m watching the
puddles to see if they’re clear or dirty. If they’re dirty in the winter, after
hunting season, then someone might be out here stealing. I look at the sheen of
tire tracks to get a sense of direction.”

That Doug fir limb we dodged up the
road? It turns out it isn’t windfall; it’s a directional marker. Hundreds of
similar branches are scattered throughout the valley’s road network to tell van
drivers where to retrieve their salal pickers.

Eison guesses this is a poacher’s
marker. “There’s plenty of A-grade product along the roadside he would have
harvested if he had a permit,” he says. “This guy made an effort to get off the
road and hide.” He searches the area and quickly finds footprints leading to a
poaching site out of view of the road, fresh cargo-van tire tracks, taco sauce
packets, gloves adorned with duct tape used to mount razor blades, and rubber
bands for tying salal bundles into one-pound “hands.” Each hand sells for 60
cents. A good picker can harvest 100 hands per day.

Over the next six hours, we find
hundreds of western white pines pillaged for their boughs, a devastated lowland
bear grass zone, and a handful of suspect salal harvests. Further investigation
might well have led to another kind of forest-product operation, like the
2,200-plant marijuana grow that was discovered in the Queets in 2008. The site
was fitted with three-quarters of a mile of irrigation pipe and littered with
herbicides so toxic they are illegal in the United States. Many marijuana grows
are found in areas from which salal and cedar have recently been harvested,
Eison says.

A few weeks later, I’m at the tail
end of another ride-along patrol, with private security contractor Furubotten,
when he locks eyes with the driver of a large box van on the outskirts of
Hoquim. “Something’s not right with that guy,” Furubotten says.

Poachers are familiar with his
vehicles, and sure enough, the van cuts a hard U-turn. After a brief
deliberation, Furubotten gives chase. We catch sight of the van backing into a
hiding spot behind a home 50 yards off the road. Incredibly, by the time we
pull over and walk down the driveway, the van has vanished. As two people duck
into the home’s back doorway, a cross-armed man shuffles over to take a
position near the garage door.

“Have you seen a large van around
here?” Furubotten asks.

“I didn’t see anything,” the man

We walk back down the drive. “That
guy could have had anything in there,” Furubotten muses. But he is out of his
jurisdiction, and nobody is talking.

Bleakney is a freelance photographer and writer for
VeloNews, the New York Times, and other publications. He lives in Seattle. Reprinted from Sierra (July/August 2012), the
magazine of the
Sierra Club,
oldest, largest, and most influential grassroots environmental organization.

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