Forest cop catches trees thieves this time of year
The Big Leaf maple had stood for over a century. Maybe two.
It’s a little hard to tell — what with it being sawed into blocks. It had been felled illegally by a tree poacher in the Capitol Forest near Olympia.
Department of Natural Resources police officer Jason Bodine stood on the stump of the tree on a visit to the site near Summit Lake earlier this week.
“Look at the size of this,” Bodine said. “Why would you cut it down?”
The poacher felled the tree just for a few sections of wood that contained figured grain. The ancient tree, owned by the public, was illegally cut so that someone could have fancy cabinets or a kick-ass electric guitar.
“That’s hundreds of years. You can’t get that back, not quickly,” Bodine said.
Bodine is just one of 11 police officers who have to cover the 6 million acres, half of which is aquatic, for which the DNR is responsible.
They ensure public and employee safety and protect resources from crime and negligence.
“That can be anything from theft to vandalism to garbage dumping,” Bodine said. “Holding people accountable for fires, search and rescue, injury accidents …”
The vast territory it covers — the Capital Forest alone has 500 miles of roads — makes it challenging for officers like Bodine.
The big leaf maple crime occurred in June.
Bodine found a man standing in a nearby road, waiting to get picked up along with his chainsaw and ill-gotten gains. Another man took off running.
“I never did get him,” Bodine said of the accomplice. “But, I got the main guy. He had sawdust all over him.”
The man was eventually convicted for the theft.
It’s not enough to put a dollar amount on a resource theft, Bodine said. The repercussions can be far reaching.
“There’s a whole ecosystem in here,” Bodine said of the maple. “The canopy provided shade for this wetland. When it was cut down, it’s exposing this whole area to sunshine.”
Bodine knows when a tree poacher has been looking for victims. The trees bear distinctive marks.
“They’ll cut bark off to see if the tree has the grain they’re looking for,” Bodine said. “What I have to do is stay ahead of them. Are they coming back for them?”
Bodine uses hidden cameras that can send a real-time image to his smart phone.
“It’s a fun job, and I love it,” Bodine, 40, said. “I’ll retire here.”
He started out in college studying forestry but switched to law enforcement halfway through. The job combines the best of both fields, he said.
As he drove higher and higher in the Capitol Forest, western Washington’s landmarks revealed themselves: Mount Rainier, the Olympics, the Tacoma Narrows. Hoarfrost covered grass and sword ferns.
Summer is the busy season for public interactions on DNR land, Bodine said. Winter is when the criminals take advantage of fewer eyes on the forest.
That leads to an increase in the theft of forest products.
Fir is cut for firewood. Salal is in high demand in the floral trade. Cedar boughs are popular as Christmas decorations.
Bodine passes a group of cedars that have been pruned of their limbs at least 40 feet high. The harvesters had applied for but not yet been granted a permit, he said.
There may be fewer users of the land in winter, but there are more search-and-rescue operations.
“If you get lost or if you drive off a road or get stuck in the winter when it’s freezing up here … now you’ve got life endangerment,” he said. “It’s a little more critical that we respond in a timely manner and get up here.”
Illegal dumping is big problem in the Capitol Forest, with its seven entrances. RVs and boats are frequently cast off. Bodine spends a good amount of time looking through garbage for addresses and for vehicle identification numbers.
“I’ve knocked on a lot of doors,” he said.
Illegal dumpers have to pay a fine and for clean-up.
On a mountainside high up in the forest, Bodine arrives where an illegal camp was reported. No one is around but a fire ring is nearby. Whoever was there had been shooting clay pigeons. Both the shooting and the fire are illegal at this particular spot.
“It’s amazing how much goes on with these lands,” he said.
The DNR will be asking the state Legislature for two more police officers in the coming session, said spokeswoman Sarah Dettmer. One would join Bodine in the South Puget Sound region and another would be assigned to the Olympic region.
“With more people, I feel we can be more proficient,” Bodine said. “We want to be there when we’re needed.”