NEAR FORKS, Wash. -- The trees stand unprotected, stripped of all but their highest boughs. Thousands of white pines, victims of a growing black market for Christmas wreath materials, will slowly die without the protection of their branches.
Washington state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) workers say they keep finding these victims of bandits who are cashing in on the lucrative forest plants market.
Legitimate gatherers buy licenses and carefully protect the upper third of the boughs needed to keep the young pines alive so that they will, someday, grow up to be sold and logged to fund schools.
In one stand alone near Forks, some 20,000 pounds of boughs were taken by thieves who can fetch 25 cents per pound for them. Another similar sized theft area was discovered nearby just a few hours later.
DNR officers say the thieves choose stands of young pines that are hidden from the eyes of people driving down area highways. They cut what they can reach, bundle it up and come back at night to collect them.
Investigators don't know how the stolen boughs get onto the market or who buys them, but they say the cost to the owners of the trees -- the taxpaying public -- is a serious loss of revenue. In this case, the operation was disrupted by an elk hunter who confronted the suspects, who then fled. Officials don't have a good description of the suspects.
They left behind much of their stolen loot, which will now rot in the woods along with the trees from which they were stripped.