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Pirates of the Rainforest

First it was old-growth timber. Now it's boughs, moss, and shrubbery. The forests of the Olympic Peninsula have always been pillaged for something. And there's nothing law enforcement can do about it.

Text and photographs by Gregg Bleakney

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 overpicking or off-season harvesting, which can kill off patches altogether. Their illicit goods are usually sold to mobile buying sheds, "basically some sort of U-Haul truck parked in a driveway or in front of a run-down motel room," Officer Eison says. "You shut them down one day and they pop up somewhere else the next."

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 annually.

In 2010, an elk hunter stumbled upon poachers taking 40,000 pounds of western white pine boughs for holiday wreaths—destroying 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 Moss. "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 the Department of Natural Resources' Raedel. "We assume there are young kids not getting enough to eat and working long hours." 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. The smoothly cut base, likely from a machete blade, is what gives it away. 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.

A short way down the road, we stop again, guided by another fallen branch, this one placed to conceal a small gap in the shrubbery along the road's edge. Eison clears the limb out of the way and picks up a trail marked by machete blaze. The gashes lead to a stand of noble firs that have been stripped of their branches for holiday wreaths. Eison sniffs. "Smells like Christmas," he says.

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.

"These guys can easily scout out the best areas and get them prepared for spring, when the grow season starts."

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. There's a shed full of boxed floral greens at the end of the cul-de-sac. 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 says.
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.

Gregg Bleakney is a freelance photographer and writer for VeloNews, the New York Times, and other publications. He lives in Seattle.

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