VIDEO: Forest Cop faces human and natural threats
U.S. Forest Service cop Jeff McIntosh can see anything from firewood to firearms in the course of day. It’s his job to figure out how much of it is legal.
He’s one of two officers charged with patrolling the 350,000 acres of the Snoqualmie District of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. He faces many of the same dangers and challenges his big city counterparts have. Plus a few more.
Snow, fire, wild animals and outdoor shooting ranges are a few.
“We do train for dealing with people,” McIntosh said last week. “But the environment is often your greatest adversary.”
Last Friday, the start of Memorial Day weekend, the environment was just slightly less than perfect. Only a light rain was falling as the forests filled with campers huddled under blue tarps along the Greenwater River.
It was the beginning of the summer recreational season. With the forest’s proximity to Puget Sound, it doesn’t take long for crowds to descend.
“It’s like somebody throws a switch Memorial Day weekend and then switches it back off on Labor Day,” McIntosh said.
“I like the idea of public land being available for everybody,” McIntosh said shortly after climbing into his truck at the Enumclaw ranger’s station. “I think that is one of our nation’s greatest ideas.”
McIntosh, 35, joined the Forest Service in 2007. Previously the Kennewick native was an agent for the U.S. Border Patrol in Arizona.
His job puts him on all-terrain vehicles, mountain bikes and snowmobiles.
Days off for McIntosh amount to a busman’s holiday. He mountain bikes, whitewater rafts, camps, hunts and fishes.
“Growing up, I used public land a lot,” he said. “That’s how I recreated.”
During a work day he might investigate an illegal dump site, check on a shooting range and talk with campers.
Mount Baker-Snoqualmie ranges from Mount Rainier National Park to the Canadian border. The Snoqualmie District that McIntosh patrols is the southernmost part of the forest stretching from Interstate 90 to Mount Rainier. That kind of coverage might make law enforcement officers rarer than sasquatch but McIntosh covers a lot of ground, sometimes putting 200 miles on his vehicle in a single day.
He calls it “windshield time.”
Because the west side of the forest is within minutes of a heavily populated region, a lot of McIntosh’s time is spent interacting with people.
Though the Forest Service has established campgrounds, many people prefer dispersed camping: Find a spot in the forest and call it home for the weekend. No pass or permit needed.
Some campers spend more than a weekend. Rules allow a 14-day stay within a 30-day period in each ranger district.
But trash and sanitation can become an issue with long-term campers, McIntosh said.
On this day he’s noticed a series of laminated signs along Forest Road 70 near Greenwater heralding something called Damp Vibes.
“It could be something completely innocuous or it could be a 400-person rave,” he says.
Following the signs, he finds the camping spot along the Greenwater River. Two men stand around a campfire. A coffee pot boils.
“How’s it going, guys?” McIntosh calls out.
Eric Logan and Brendan Croft are awaiting a half-dozen more campers from Tacoma.
Damp Vibes is the name of the annual camping weekend for the friends who go back to junior high school days.
“Every Memorial Day weekend we go out camping and it rains without fail,” Logan says.
After a quick chat, McIntosh leaves. During such encounters he takes note of any demeanor that might indicate laws being, or about to be, broken.
“Those guys,” McIntosh said. “Not a hint of nervousness out of either of them.”
Later along Forest Road 7013 a small series of cascades, the kind a suburban homeowner would pay thousands to have in his backyard, stairstep through ferns and moss-covered rocks.
Just a yard to the right of the idyllic scene a tree lies at a horizontal angle, its stump a frozen explosion of splinters.
A dozen others lie near it. The 18-inch-diameter trees were blasted apart by bullets.
“It’s definitely illegal to shoot standing timber in the national forest,” McIntosh says, looking over the situation.
Copper-jacketed slugs can be pulled out of the stumps by hand. Some trees still bear fresh bull’s-eye targets.
Aside from the environmental destruction, the illegal shooting range is a public hazard. The woods might be dark and lovely, but deep they’re not.
“You’re not the only person out here,” McIntosh says. “This isn’t the middle of nowhere. It’s a densely populated national forest.”
McIntosh notes angles indicating some shots were fired into the valley below with roads and campsites.
Trash, from bullet-ridden TVs to piles of shotgun shells, litter the ground. A small pond holds beer cans, clay pigeons and other garbage.
McIntosh climbs back into his truck and heads uphill to a large rock quarry where a trio of men are shooting semi-automatic rifles and a pistol. The rock and dirt make for a safe and legal backdrop.
“I want to make sure that everybody is shooting safely and that there are no conflicts between any of the users,” McIntosh says.
As with the tree site, he also pays attention to what people are shooting at. Sometimes he will find target shooters using glass, appliances and exploding targets. All of those are illegal.
Tannerite, a combination of ammonium nitrate and aluminum powder, explodes when hit by a bullet and has become a popular target for gun enthusiasts. It’s not legal on Forest Service lands.
Higher up the road, McIntosh passes a pickup headed in the opposite direction. In his mirrors he sees it’s full of firewood.
The driver, Chris Sylvain of Enumclaw, pulls over before McIntosh even has a chance to turn around.
“He stopped me last year,” Sylvain explained a few moments later. “And I was good then, too.”
A yellow permit tag is clearly attached to the load of silver fir.
Only fallen timber can be harvested for firewood. It’s one of dozens of forest products that can be harvested legally, with a permit.
But standing big leaf maples are not one of them. Thieves target them for their burls.
“They’re looking for a quick buck,” McIntosh says.
Burls are growths on trees where the normal linear grain grows in whorled patterns. It’s highly sought after for bowls, furniture, musical instruments and the dashboards of expensive cars.
The burls are not removed with surgical precision. The entire old-growth tree is felled to remove it.
“Those have taken years to get there and they are not easily replaced,” McIntosh says.
Even smaller plants are subject to theft. The evergreen salal plant is a frequent target as is bear grass. Both are used in the floral trade.
“If you’ve ever bought or received flowers, you’ve seen it,” McIntosh says of the spiky bear grass.
Plant collectors can obtain a transplanting permit to gather ferns and other plants.
“I don’t take any of this personally,” McIntosh says of those who trash public lands. “With a lot of people, they’re not even intentionally doing things incorrectly. They just don’t understand the ramifications.”
He recounts a recent contact he made with a woman who was about to leave several bags of trash at her campsite.
“It was clear she wasn’t going to have room to fit it in her car,” McIntosh recalled. He told her that Forest Service lands have a pack it in, pack it out policy.
“She was shocked,” he says. “She couldn’t believe that I was asking her to remove all that trash.”
Not everyone either knows or shares the leave-no-trace ethos of camping.
“We are left with bags and bags of trash like they think Waste Management is going to be driving by,” McIntosh says of some campers.
Dump sites can found anywhere.
“People pretty much dump wherever there’s a wide spot in the road,” McIntosh says.
Appliances, roofing materials, drug paraphernalia, paint and household waste are common finds.
Sometimes a car breaks down on Forest Service land. It soon can become a permanent problem if left abandoned.
“It’s going to become somebody’s target practice,” McIntosh says. Or set on fire. Or pushed in to a creek.
Rule-bending deer hunters take note. Somewhere in the dark forests there’s a deer that can’t be killed no matter how many slugs it takes.
Call it Robo-Bambi.
The robotic deer decoy that McIntosh deploys during deer season has a remote control that allows McIntosh to move its head and tail.
“Even though we don’t get a lot of deer hunters, I still manage to get that thing shot quite a bit,” McIntosh says.
Poaching calls and other animal wildlife issues usually are routed to officers with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
McIntosh deploys the decoy after dark to catch hunters who use headlights, spotlights and other artificial lights to locate game. It’s illegal to hunt after established hours and to use lights.
Up close, Robo-Bambi doesn’t look real. But buck fever can make a hunter lose his mind a little.
“It never ceases to amaze me,” McIntosh says. “There are people who have shot that thing at 10 to 15 yards.”
The U.S. Forest Service:
▪ Manages 193 million acres in 44 States and territories, representing 30 percent of all federally owned lands.
▪ There are 154 national forests.
▪ 2016 law enforcement budget: $126 million.
▪ Number of law enforcement personnel nationwide: 737.