Oregon deputies say forests a gold mine for crooks

ALBANY, Ore. — Earlier this year, authorities followed a pickup truck to a warehouse in Philomath and seized more than 13,000 pounds of salal, a leafy Northwest plant prized for its shelf life in floral arrangements.

It’s shipped to the East Coast and even to Europe, and the black-market operation was an example of the wealth that thieves take from public forests, law enforcement officers tell the Albany Democrat-Herald.

Among the plunder: Morel mushrooms, truffles, evergreen boughs for the Christmas season, bear grass for flower arrangements, sometimes whole fir trees or ferns for landscaping, Oregon grape or devil’s club for anti-inflammatories, and the white bark of a species of buckthorn called cascara that’s peeled off for use as a laxative.

“If it grows out here, somebody’s probably taking it,” said timber Deputy Brandon Fountain of the Linn County sheriff’s office. “And it’s overlooked how big of an issue this is.”

Firewood is commonly taken illegally, as is moss.

Fountain said he stopped a suspect a few weeks ago with 600 pounds of moss in his pickup.

Eventually, that illegally harvested product was to make its way to a national retailer for sale at $9 for less than a pound, he said.

“Think of the market value of that,” he said.

Forest deputies such as Fountain and a counterpart in Benton County, Brent Iverson, aren’t alone in the woods. They’re in contact with federal land managers and timber company workers.

They say people who want to harvest forest products should generally call the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service or Oregon Department of Forestry for information on permits. Some timber companies also will issue permits.

Iverson stressed that not everyone harvesting forest products is a crook.

“There are also legit people out there that are doing this work and making a living,” he said.

Some of those harvesting illegally do so in camps marked by trash and the rubber bands and twine used for bundling their products, Iverson said.

Sometimes the large camps will even hire poachers to provide food for the harvesters, Iverson said.

“They are a huge criminal network,” Iverson said.

In the salal investigation, Iverson said, the suspects had harvest permits but were over their weight limits by thousands of pounds. A Washington state man was accused of theft and three others were accused of illegal cutting or transport.

Iverson said a dump truck hauled the salal from the warehouse, but couldn’t do it in one load.

“That’s the biggest (salal case) in the state in the last 20 or 25 years that anybody’s heard of,” he said.

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