Deputy Ted, Forest Avenger

Poachers are stealing potentially millions of dollars worth of decorative hardwoods, moss and other greenery from forests in the Pacific Northwest every year. Deputy Ted Drogmund, of Washington State, says he has caught more than 70 woodland thieves this year alone.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

Hey, the days of Robin Hood and his merry men camping out in the woods and robbing the rich, long gone, but it turns out the woods are crawling with thieves, at least in the Pacific Northwest. The ill-gotten gains are greens, literally - moss, greenery, that stuff that goes in bouquets, decorative hardwoods. It's estimated that all that floor is a $236-million a year industry. And that doesn't even conclude the illegal sales.

This is a story we ripped off…

(Soundbite of "Law and Order" transition sound)

STEWART: …from the headlines at The Wall Street Journal. Deputy Ted Drogmund of the Mason County Sheriff's Department in Washington patrols about a thousand square miles of private and public forest land, and he says he's caught more than 70 woodland thieves so far this year. Way to go, Deputy Ted.

Deputy TED DROGMUND (Mason County Sheriff Department, Washington): Oh, thank you.

STEWART: So who are these thieves? Are they individuals, or is this an organized sort of ring?

Deputy DROGMUND: It's both. The - it's become pretty organized, and a lot of groups get together and do this, you know, smaller groups. And I've up to 24 that I've arrested at one time.

STEWART: So when you say do this, what's their M.O.? What do they exactly do?

Deputy DROGMUND: Well, they sneak out around the woods and harvest forest products illegally, a lot of them. There's a lot of legal ones that do it, too, but we're - I just deal with the illegal ones, mostly.

LUKE BURBANK, host:

So do you come up on them and they've got a chainsaw out and they're just in the middle of cutting down a tree, or do they have to use something more quiet than that?

Deputy DROGMUND: They use chainsaws, depending on what species they're harvesting. And this is minor forest products - which is the things used in flower arrangements and things like that - up to timber, which they would use chainsaws for that.

STEWART: Now, we originally were interested in this story based on that Wall Street Journal report about the moss theft. But I understand moss isn't really the biggest problem. What is?

Deputy DROGMUND: Around here, it's sallow, which is a shrub that grows close to the ground. They use it in flower arrangements and the boughs off the trees that they use for, say, Christmas wreaths. And that's right - currently, that's what's going on right now. It's bough season. They're getting ready for Christmas.

BURBANK: That - actually, I grew up in Washington State, and I've been to Mason County plenty of times. And there is, you know, foliage aplenty everywhere. Why is it that people have to go into the forest to steal stuff for a bough? Can't they just go in their backyard?

Deputy DROGMUND: Well, I suppose they could if they had the quantity of trees that we have here in our area.

STEWART: Can you talk us through a typical day? What are you looking for when you go out on patrol?

Deputy DROGMUND: I just pick an area, unless I have a call already at that spot. But I pick an area, and I just go out there and I start driving around and I'll look for tire tracks or evidence of harvesting. And then I'll -sometimes I'll just get out of my truck and walk in the woods and start looking around.

BURBANK: I understand that there's a connection to meth.

Deputy DROGMUND: There is. It's a big problem around here, just like probably everywhere in the United States. And some of the people involved with that part of the drug world will - they harvest a lot of the timber products, like the music - we call music wood, which is figured maple that they use for making guitars and violins. And they'll do that sometimes in the middle of the night.

BURBANK: How much can they get? Like a section of maple, what does that mean for somebody who brings it into, I guess, a person who buys it. Is it like a hundred bucks? A thousand bucks?

Deputy DROGMUND: Well, each - they'll cut it into smaller boards out in the woods. And they can get, you know, 60 to $80 a board. And these boards are maybe two feet long by maybe three-inches thick and maybe, I don't know, a foot wide. So each tree can bring them in, you know, maybe a couple of thousand dollars.

BURBANK: Wow.

Deputy DROGMUND: It doesn't grow in all the maple. It's just a characteristic that develops through the years.

STEWART: So Deputy Ted, I'm wondering about the people who buy this stuff. Do they know, do they understand that they're buying stolen goods?

Deputy DROGMUND: Well, in our state, they're required to show a permit when you sell something like that. So - and these sheds that buy these are required to look at the permit from the person selling the wood. So…

STEWART: So how's your conviction rate? How do you - do you find yourself arresting the same guys over and over again?

Deputy DROGMUND: I have. I see some of the same faces, you know, over the years, that return. It's once they learn how to do it, that's kind of their deal.

STEWART: Well, Deputy Ted Drogun - Drogmund, excuse me - Mason County Sheriff's Department in Washington State, good luck out there today.

Deputy DROGMUND: Oh, well, thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

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