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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 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 cellphone, 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 two 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 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.

Larry Raedel, the law enforcement chief of the Department of Natural Resources, makes frequent trips from the agency's Olympia headquarters to visit his eight officers in the 5.6 million acres for which they are responsible. "We're spread pretty thin," Raedel acknowledges. "We know there's a lot of theft happening out there and do all we can with what we have."

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. His office is strewn with Ansel Adams prints, night-vision cameras, mercury-trigger switches, military-grade connection cables, and merchandising placards from a backpacking and mountaineering gear store he used to own. "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 the 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."

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A caption has been corrected.

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