I own a piece of second-growth forestland that abuts the Tahuya forest in Washington State. It is my contribution to the wildlife conservation effort. I think of it as a small, privately owned nature preserve. By choosing land adjacent to an existing forest I have effectively increased the size of that forest. Not being part of an ecological hotspot, its preservation means far less than that of, say, the Monteverde cloud forest of Costa Rica. Nonetheless, my efforts to protect it over the years have taught me a few things.
For example, although it is illegal to do so, brush pickers often visit this property. People who pick brush for a living look for parts of wild plants used by floral companies to accent their flower arrangements. Whenever you buy a bouquet, keep in mind that those greens were picked by hand in Northwest forests. The pickers bring their bags full of greens to large warehouses where they are sorted and shipped out to florist shops. It is a growing industry. I have watched the construction of a half-dozen such warehouses in the past ten years.
Brush pickers bushwhack through forestland, 365 days a year, gleaning specific greens from it — salal, moss, beargrass, evergreen boughs, and ferns. They have trimmed the lower branches off all the young western pine trees on this property. Each year around Christmas time, they trim a little higher on the tree. The boughs are made into Christmas wreaths. On some trees there are almost no branches left.
I recall one day when a group of Spanish-speaking brush pickers swept through the forest adjacent to my property talking and whistling as they went. Just a few hours later, a group of Vietnamese-speaking pickers did the same.
In reality, they are on the lookout for anything of value, not just the greens used by florists. That is not a slur against poor brush pickers. It is a natural and expected result of poverty. Not too long ago, authorities found over 600 bags of illegally picked moss in Kitsap County (the same county my preserve is located in). Forest Service enforcement officers spend about half their time on thefts of non-timber products. By some estimates, about three-quarters of the picking is done illegally and paid for with cash. Few taxes are paid. As the number of brush pickers grows and time marches on, our forestlands are beginning to look like trodden city parks. The privacy needed by wildlife to give birth and raise their offspring is being violated on a continual basis.
I made a trip to my property a few weeks ago and found several items of interest. There were the usual junk food wrappers, some printed in Spanish and some in an Asiatic language, beer cans, and piles of rubber bands for bundling picked salal. I also found a pair of rubber boots and a sinister looking glove with a razor-sharp hook attached to it. I’ve seen gloves like these before. I think they are used to cut the salal. The most interesting find was a big steaming pile of bear scat. I laid my pencil next to it and took a picture (I know… I need to get a life). I wonder how much a bear gal bladder goes for on the black market theses days?
I know of a study done in the Olympic national forest on the effects of browsing by elk. The researchers fenced off small patches of forest. After a year or two they compared what they found inside the fences to the rest of the forest. The difference was astounding. A similar study on the effects of brush picking would make a great thesis for some graduate student (hint, hint). Even without a study like this, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that brush picking is having an effect on our forests. I noticed on the bouquet I bought for mother’s day that most of the salal was of poor quality, possibly a sign that demand is outstripping supply.
I cannot honestly see any politician pushing to make the harvest of floral greens illegal. Too many people are now making a living off the fad. It makes me wonder, though, how many more fads are going to come along that will further degrade our forests and other forests of the world.
The environment continues to be chewed up by people looking to improve their lives. It is only natural.