By Paul Gottlieb
Peninsula Daily News
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"It's the least preferable option, or maybe the last option," said District Ranger Dean Yoshina.
Yoshina hasn't decided where he'd ban permits but said he would focus on "essentially areas where there isn't any more firewood.
"I'd like to do a lot of education and enforcement. If [illegal harvesting] continues, then closing areas to firewood cutting is what I would do."
The 350,000-acre Hood Canal District includes broad areas of Clallam and Jefferson counties.
Current trouble spots include Forest Service access roads through areas of Blyn east of Sequim, Lost Mountain west of Sequim, and Lords Lake southwest of Quilcene.
Twenty cords worth about $3,000 were poached in Lords Lake the first week in February.
Illegal cutters are spurning the narrowly defined rules that allow the taking of wood only on Forest Service roads, and instead gutting pockets of Forest Service land where trees grow and blow-down is vital for new forest growth, Forest Service officials said.
The legal cutting zone consists of the roadway and ditch but not beyond the slope line, an area that, in its totality, Yoshina refers to as the "road prism."
Live trees cannot be cut under any circumstances with a firewood permit.
"What is alarming is that they are not only removing downed trees, but people are cutting standing Douglas fir trees well over 100 years old and removing them for firewood," Yoshina said.
"We just haven't experienced this level of cutting before."
Violation notices increased sixfold, from 13 in 2006 to 80 in 2008, said John Klaasen, Forest Service patrol captain for law enforcement and investigations for northwest Washington.
The Lords Lake theft was just a tiny fraction of what was stolen in the year that ended five weeks earlier.
Klaasen said that in 2008, poachers stole $250,000 of wood that, as "a very rough estimate," was equal to 1,600 cords, using the going rate of about $150 a cord.
"That's a lot of wood," Klaasen said.
But while there were 15 violation notices issued in January 2007 and 15 in January 2008, nine were issued this January.
"A lot of it is just our staffing," Klaasen said.
He said the staff of Forest Service officers who patrol the district's 800 miles of roughly hewn roads was reduced to two in 2009 from four in 2008, although other law enforcement agencies sometimes supplement the Forest Service patrols, and some Forest Service employees can issue notices at their discretion.
"We haven't had the manpower to be out there," Klaasen said.
With so few officers and so many miles to patrol, "the hardest part is catching somebody," Klaasen said.
"Much of our time is wasted driving around looking for someone and being there at the right time."
The scofflaws include cutters without permits, cutters with permits who can't find roadway wood and, more and more, cutters cutting wood and selling loads in the open from pickup trucks.
They must be caught in the act to be cited, said Forest Service Engine Captain Donald Svetich, an agency veteran of more than 20 year.
They hurt not only the forest, he said.
"This is the public's land, and they are stealing from the public, that's the root there," Svetich said.
Yoshina and Klaasen agreed that more than half of the violations are likely committed by cutters carrying permits who decide to cut outside the legal zone.
"What we are seeing now is, people are feeling like, hey, nobody is out there in the woods as far as the Forest Service is concerned, this is a good time to take advantage of the situation," Klaasen said.
Because of the narrowly defined cutting areas, it's easy to see where illegal harvesting has occurred.
In his patrols, Svetich said he is seeing more areas that usual in which it is readily apparent that wood has been illegally cut.
"It started last year and just ramped up something terrible this year, this winter," he said.
"In one area, I counted upward of 20 trees cut, standing green trees that were cut and removed. In some cases, you can still smell the freshness of the wood chips."
Even though more cutters with permits are cutting illegally, the Forest Service continues to issue more permits.
Firewood permits issued from Jan. 1 to mid-February have doubled from 62 in 2008 to 128 in 2009.
And legal wood is vanishing fast.
"We have issued a lot of firewood permits, even though we are telling people that there aren't that many sources anymore," Yoshina said.
But he's more inclined to ban permits from certain heavily used areas rather than reduce the overall number of permits issued.
"We do let them know there isn't lot of wood out there, but in some cases these are people who may want to go out there and cut what they can get, maybe a quarter load, and that's the extent of it," Yoshina said.
"For many people, this is recreation, and they enjoy what they are doing."
Olympic National Forest borders Olympic National Park, where firewood gathering is illegal for all uses but campfire use within the park.
Park spokeswoman Barb Maynes said Thursday she did not know how often wood is cut illegally within park boundaries.
"We know it occurs, and where it does occur, it's a problem," she said.
Wood-gathering rules for Olympic National Park are at www.nps.gov/olym.
Staff writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-417-3536 or at firstname.lastname@example.org