Salal harvesting deadly?
dwheeler at teleport.com
dwheeler at teleport.com
Tue Feb 24 02:53:29 EST 1998
The following article appeared in The Oregonian's Metro section for Monday,
Feb. 23, 1998.
Forest harvesters reap treasures, violence
By DAVID FOSTER, The Associated Press
The scramble for shrubbery, mushrooms and berries worth about $200 million in
Oregon and Washington, turns desperate
ABERDEEN, Wash. - The van dropped them off just after dawn, and the brush
pickers trudged through the fog-chilled forest, their heads down, their quick
hands plucking leafy stems from the undergrowth.
If things went well, each of the young men might make $60 for a long day
of gathering salal, an evergreen plant used in flower arrangements.
But things would not go well.
By nightfall, one man would be dead, and another would be in jail. All for
a pile of leaves.
Around noon, the pickers looked up and saw a stranger among them. This is
my picking area, he said, so hand over that brush.
What gives you the right to take it, they asked.
The stranger pulled out a pistol. This is my permission, he said.
The horde of loggers that once swarmed through the Pacific Northwest is
much diminished today, as is the forest itself. But amid the second growth, a
burgeoning crowd now seeks smaller treasures: mushrooms, berries, herbs, moss
Largely ignored a decade ago - before Big Timber met the spotted owl - the
harvest of such "special forest products" now is worth at least $200 million
a year in Washington and Oregon, according to James Freed, a forester with the
Washington State University Cooperative Extension.
Some celebrate this new forest economy, which thrives on the growing
appetite for the good life a la Martha Stewart: the earthy taste of
chanterelles in linguine, the just-so splash of green a sprig of salal adds to
Supplying such refined sensibilities, however, can be a rough and dirty
business. As ever more gleaners tramp through the forest, the hunt has turned
desperate and dangerous.
Nearly all the picking occurs on land owned by big timber companies or the
government, which try to regulate (and profit from) the harvest with permit
fees and limits on the number of pickers allowed. But in the woods, where law
enforcement is weak, the rules that many live by are straight out of the Old
West: Take what you can. Don't get caught. Carry a gun.
Each fall in the Cascades of Oregon, about 2,000 mushroom hunters pursue
the matsutake, a cinnamon-scented delicacy prized in Japan. Forest rangers try
to keep the harvest legal, but they are outflanked by pickers who are armed
and protective of their secret spots.
At night in the mushroom camps, drinking, gambling and fighting are the
favored pastimes. Extra ranger patrols helped keep the peace last fall, but
1996 was more typical, with five shootings, one of them fatal.
Now trouble has come to the rainy hills of Western Washington, where the
gathering of wild floral greens has become big business, a good portion of it
illegal. Where whining chain saws once felled tall timber, the second-growth
forest now hides a furtive scramble for shrubbery, the quiet broken only by
the snapping of twigs.
Like Oregon's mushroom hunters, the brush pickers here are mostly Latino
and Southeast Asian. Many are illegal immigrants, willing to work long hours
for piecework wages in exchange for a job that conceals them all day in the
More pickers arrive each year. Now, everyone agrees, too many people
compete for too little brush.
Rustlers without proper permits steal millions of dollars in brush.
Private security patrols chase them through the woods. Tempers flare, and the
threat of violence drums as steadily as the winter rain.
"People become cowboys," forester Freed said. "They shoot first and think
One man's story
Alfredo Menjivar had advantages over some brush pickers: a green card, a
good command of English and a van that ran most of the time.
At 21 years old, he stood just 5 feet 3 inches tall but was muscular and
confident, a leader in his tight circle of Salvadoran friends.
Menjivar and six others shared a tiny rental house in Aberdeen, a timber
town where hard times are not unknown but where few live so poorly as
Menjivar. The living room was furnished with a set of barbells, a picture of
the Virgin Mary and two seats pulled from his van.
As brush pickers go, Menjivar and his friends were not very experienced.
When prices are high and the salal is thick, a skilled picker can make more
than $100 a day. Menjivar's crew usually made $40 to $60 apiece.
But picking brush helped sustain Menjivar's American dream. He had a
girlfriend, whom he'd take to the mall and movies. Every month, he would send
money home to El Salvador: $150, sometimes $200.
When his van was running, Menjivar made extra cash by shuttling other
pickers to the woods at $5 a rider. That was the plan Dec. 11. Menjivar drove
four or five pickers out to a stretch of forest a few miles northwest of
Aberdeen. He dropped them off and returned to town to run some errands.
Around 2 p.m., a friend caught up with Menjivar at the bank.
There had been trouble in the woods. A Mexican guy with a gun, he said,
had taken all their brush. Soon Menjivar and a van full of friends were
barreling out to the woods. When they arrived, the guy with the pistol was
still there, sitting in a pickup in a clearing by the road. His wife was
sitting next to him.
Menjivar got out of the van and strode up to the passenger side of the
pickup. He banged on the window. Why did you take our brush? he yelled in
The window rolled down. More words were exchanged. The man with the pistol
extended his arm across his wife's chest. A single shot exploded, and Menjivar
took it full in the face, falling backward to the black rock paving the
shoulder of the road.
Sheriff's deputies stopped the pickup 25 miles away and arrested Leonelo
Martinez. At first, he denied any involvement, but then he broke down: Yes,
he'd pointed his gun out the window. No, he didn't recall pulling the trigger.
"There's no brush out here worth anybody's life," Lennie Morris declared.
That said, Morris understands how tension can mount in the woods. He is
president of Mill Creek Floral Greens International, a big player in
Washington's brush-picking trade.
These days, Morris is pretty tense, too.
Years ago, a handful of brush pickers roamed the forest, unnoticed in a
region preoccupied with logging. Now, with worldwide demand growing for
Northwest floral greens, it seems to Morris as if everyone wants a piece of
the brush-picking action.
He trades in all sorts of wild greens: huckleberry, ferns, bear grass,
moss. But salal is the biggest seller, with large and leathery leaves that
keep their color for months in cold storage.
Morris said his operation is strictly aboveboard. He spends tens of
thousands of dollars a year for brush-picking ights to private land and
charges each of his pickers $75 for a two-week permit.
But he must compete with fly-by-night buyers who ask no questions and pay
in cash, thus giving poachers a market for ill-gotten brush. Each year, he
said, thieves pick as much as 35 percent of the salal on his leased land and
cost him more than $1 million. All of which explains why, one recent February
evening, Morris sat in a pickup outside a dilapidated motel, staring through
the rain-streaked windshield at a van parked across the road.
He was on "rat patrol," and he knew a rustler's van when he saw it -
windows darkened, license plates caked with mud, seats pulled out to make room
A bicyclist soon appeared out of the gloom. Pedaling up to the empty van,
he stashed his mountain bike inside and drove off, trailed discreetly by
Morris and two other brush patrollers in the pickup.
A wrong turn cost the pursuers two minutes,and by the time they caught up
with the van, it was parked in a gravel turnout, crammed with five rain-sodden
men and 1,000 bunches of freshly picked salal.
The pickup boxed in the van, and Morris whipped out his cell phone.
"We've got a brush theft in progress," he told the sheiff's dispatcher.
"Yes. A brush theft."
Deputies arrived 20 minutes later, dutifully taking pictures of the brush,
the van and the bike. "We're getting these calls a couple of times a week,"
Deputy Randy Gibson said. "It's getting to be a pain."
The pickers insisted that they had gathered nearly all their salal 20
miles away, in an area where they had a permit to pick. A trail of leaves
leading into the woods behind the van suggested otherwise.
The deputies confiscated the salal, worth about $850, and turned it over
to one of Morris' fellow patrollers, whose company owns the brush-picking
rights to the surrounding forest.
Another side of the story
Those who mourn Alfredo Menjivar believe he was shot in cold blood.
"For nothing!" blurted his cousin, Jose Menjivar. "Alfredo go up and talk
to him. They open the window up. Pfff! For no reason.|
But friends of Leonelo Martinez tell a different story - that of a hard-
working businessman trying to protect himself and his wife against a gang of
The day Menjivar died, his friends walked past "Private Property" signs
posted in English and Spanish to pick brush in an area leased by a company
called Mount St. Helens Evergreens. Martinex supervised that company's brush-
Martinez, 26, was charged with second-degree murder, but he got out of
jail on $100,000 bail just before Christmas and soon was back at work. He will
claim self-defense at his trial in May.
"Any reasonable individual can see the dangerousness of the situation,"
said his attorney, Rod Franzen, "It's like the old California Gold Rush days.
You've got people jumping other people's claims, and there's no law out there
to stop it."
More than 150 people attended Menjivar's funeral, singing and reading
goodbye letters in Spanish.
Melissa Manwell understood little of it, but she cried a lot anyway.
Melissa lives a few doors down from Menjivar's house, and the two of them had
planned to get married this June, when she will turn 16.
She's going to have his baby.
Others may call Menjivar a rustler. But Melissa will tell her child of a
man who baby-sat for friends and loved to talk, even to strangers he met on
the street. After the shooting, Melissa started a scrapbook. In it are
snapshots of Menjivar, sympathy cards and newspaper stories that got his name
wrong. On one page, pressed carefully under plastic, is a single leaf of
Melissa put it there in December, but the leaf is still green.
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