The Christmas wreath you hang on the door this year may be hot.
An annual black market for tree boughs illegally harvested from local timberlands has sprung up once again, with teams of illicit pruners chopping cedar and fir branches and selling them to florists and big-time wholesalers for Christmas wreaths and garlands, authorities said.
It's big business — and it's destructive. In many cases entire trees are felled for the tips of their branches. In others, thieves shimmy to the tops of trees and lop off every branch, leaving only the naked trunks standing.
"Unfortunately, it happens pretty much every year," said Cowlitz County Chief Criminal Deputy Charlie Rosenzweig. "Typically these are commercial operations. ... You're talking about pickup loads, not for personal use."
On Nov. 22, a Weyerhaeuser Co. representative told the Cowlitz County Sheriff's Office that thieves were stealing Port Orford cedar and noble fir boughs from the company's timber stands in the Abernathy Creek area west of Longview.
"The concern is that if it continues to damage our trees, we may be forced to shut down portions of our tree farm at certain times of year to keep this from happening," Weyerhaeuser spokesman Anthony Chavez said Thursday.
Chavez, as well as law enforcement officials, said they're counting on hunters and other members of the public to call 9-1-1 if they see anything suspicious.
The illegal harvesters are raiding forest stands across the state, said Larry Raedel, the chief law enforcement officer for the state Department of Natural Resources.
In late September, he said, state Department of Natural Resources officers spotted a group of men loading a van with boughs in DNR's Capitol Forest in Thurston County. The men scattered and were never caught, he said. DNR ended up seizing the van and selling the boughs — about 1,000 pounds in all — for $100 to recoup some of the agency's lost timber revenue, he said.
In another recent case, Raedel said, a whole stand of white pines on the Olympic Peninsula were "hit hard" by bough harvesters. "The trees had just been butchered," he said.
The DNR has not had as large a bought theft problem in Southwest Washington, said Eric Wisch, the agency's regional manager here.
The agency sells noble fir boughs from its lands between the two forks of the Toutle River. At harvest time, "we're in there and the contractors are in there, and that helps dissuade thefts," Wisch said.
DNR's sales of timber and other forest products pay for construction of new public schools and universities. Raedel estimated those programs lost thousands of dollars from the white pines alone.
Tree boughs and other forest products, such as salal, mushrooms and bear grass can be legally harvested with permits. Raedel said Oregon and Washington are two of the world's biggest producers of such forest products — which is why it's so lucrative to pick harvest them illegally, Raedel said.
Those who get caught can be charged with a felony and fined three times the value of the timber, he said.
Raedel said DNR has resorted to installing battery-powered surveillance cameras and trip alarms that send a radio signal to law enforcement when people enter certain forest areas. Still, nabbing the thieves is difficult.
"It's a cat-and-mouse game out there with these folks," Raedel said. "They're pretty cagey and they work in pretty remote areas."