TOPICS > Economy

The Business of Forest Smuggling

December 24, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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KCTS in Seattle, Washington looks into the illegal side of the holiday industry of forest greenery. Lesley McClurg has more on how forest smuggling has short term effects on businesses and long term effects on the environment.

MARGARET WARNER: Now the illegal harvesting of holiday greenery. The story is part of our series “NewsHour Connect.” Tonight’s report comes Lesley McClurgof KCTS, Seattle.

LESLEY MCCLURG : Sun Chow (ph) came to the United States in the early 80s to escape the Communist government in Vietnam.

SUN CHOW (ph): (Inaudible).

LESLEY MCCLURG : He and his wife found work in our local forests.

SUN CHOW : If we go to find a job, then maybe pay no good. Not enough for family. Three kids, yes. Eight dollar or nine dollar not enough.

LESLEY MCCLURG: The Chows (ph) are among the thousands of immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, and southeast Asia who work in the woods harvesting boughs for Christmas wreaths, ferns and flowers for
bouquets, and mushrooms and medicinals for pharmaceuticals.

Sun Chow (ph) has an annual permit from Green Diamond Timber Company to harvest a specific plot of land. At the end of the day he sells his goods to a wholesaler like Lyle Skillman (ph) at Brothers United.

LYLE SKILLMAN During the year we buy sallow, (inaudible), bear grass (ph), curly willow, splat (ph) ferns, things like that. Maybe eight different items.

LESLEY MCCLURG (ph): Brothers United is one of many wholesalers in Shelton, Washington who sells secondary forest products. These include any item other than trees harvested from the woods.

LYLE SKILLMAN (ph): These wreath makers will produce 3,500 — 4,000 wreaths a day.

LESLEY MCCLURG (ph): It’s a multi-billion dollar international trade and important to our local economy. According to the Department of Labor and Industries, these specialty goods are estimated to bring in $236 million to Washington state.

LYLE SKILLMAN (ph): So this is just everything that`s getting ready to ship. And we just shipped about eight truckloads. So this is like really empty. Between now and Friday we`ll do about 10 or 12 trucks. And when we start shipping at the last week of October through December 15th, we probably do in excess of 100 semi loads of sallow (ph) and Christmas products — unfinished wreaths and shipping. And there`s companies that do 300 plus.

LESLEY MCCLURG: But the industry might be growing too fast. Simple greens have become such red hot commodities it has sparked a black market of illegal harvesting.

SUN CHOW (ph): They come to steal here. You know, steal a lot every year.

JASON SISSEN (ph): The problem is huge. It`s — it`s out of control at times.

LESLEY MCCLURG (ph): Deputy Jason Sissen (ph) patrols the woods in Mason County scouting for illegal harvesters. Mostly alone, Sissen (ph) monitors hundreds of thousands of acres of difficult terrain.

JASON SISSEN (ph): My agency does not have the resources to cover it all. It is way larger a problem than — than we can handle.

SUN CHOW (ph): When we come to the place, they took from here.

LESLEY MCCLURG (ph): Land owners like Craig Marbet (ph) from Green Diamond Timber Company work with pickers to try and keep an eye on the land.

CRAIG MARBET (ph): The problem is, you know, Chow works 12 hour days or whatever, and he can`t be everywhere.

LESLEY MCCLURG (ph): Thieves left this bundle behind in a midnight a few weeks ago.

CRAIG MARBET (ph): You could see where they probably waited till a vehicle came. Vehicle came by, they loaded it up quickly and off they went.

LESLEY MCCLURG (ph): Illegal harvesting is not only a financial loss for land owners and pickers. Experts say our forests are taking a beating. Because when an area is poached, it`s often slashed without
any concern for regrowth.

SUN CHOW (ph): I careful because I look — just take a bough. A little bit money, but the tree does more money. Maybe kill this in the — in the future. It will just die — this tree. It die.

LESLEY MCCLURG (ph): Thieves target older growth trees as well. Poachers typically scale a tree, strip it for it`s branches, and then sell just the tips of the boughs to wholesalers.

JASON SISSEN (ph): I`m still in shock just to see the — the damage that they`re willing to leave behind just to — just to get a few bucks.

LESLEY MCCLURG (ph): As the market grows and competition increases, the woods are becoming a dangerous place.

SUN CHOW (ph): They stick the gun to my head.

LESLEY MCCLURG (ph): Pickers like Sun Chow have been robbed. Others have been beaten up, and even shot in turf wars.

JASON SISSEN (ph): And the people that I come across most of the time are armed with some sort of weapon.

NALINI NADKARNI: You know we`re seeing the presence of gangs. Not gangs in the urban sense, but of people who are sort of competing and even fighting in some cases over particularly rich areas of plant harvest.

LESLEY MCCLURG: Ecologists like Nalini Nadkarni are trying to raise the red flag about smuggling. Especially when it comes to environmentally delicate products like moss, which play a key role in a forest eco system by helping to regulate water.

NALINI NADKARNI: So when you strip whole branches and whole trunks off the way mosses have been harvested, it takes literally 20 to 30 years for that to grow back, and it`s clearly not sustainable.

LESLEY MCCLURG: It`s almost impossible to tabulate just how much brush is stolen from our forests every year. According to a 2005 study from Oregon State University, the commercial sale of moss alone was around $165 million. That`s enough moss to fill almost 5,000 semi trucks. But only 1 to 2 percent of that was harvested legally. The rest was all under the table.

Ecologists like Nadkarni are working on the science to grow moss commercially. But until then, she sees long term leases as the best alternative to preserve the land.

NALINI NADKARNI: There`s a vested interest in harvesting sustainably. If you grab everything that first year and out you run, you may make a lot of money that first year. But when you come back the
second year, there ain`t nothing there, or it`s severely reduced.

LESLEY MCCLURG (ph): Legal harvesters like Sun Chow (ph) agree. Luckily he`s had his lease from Green Diamond for over 20 years; something he and his family feel fortunate about.

SUN CHOW (ph): But when I come here and work the woods in a quiet place — fresh air.

LESLEY MCCLURG (ph): Chow (ph) hopes it will stay that way. His livelihood depends on healthy forests.