Skip to comments.Bouquets may hold ill-gotten greens (harvested by illegals)
Posted on 02/14/2002 4:42:25 PM PST by testforecho
FORKS -- Chatting in Spanish, young men with copper-colored skin stand 10 deep in line at the Tesoro gas station and convenience store, waiting to buy their Cokes, chips and other goodies that will sustain them through another hard day.
A harried clerk rings them up as fast as she can, but the line grows. "It's like this for three or four hours every morning," says another employee, scrambling to make more coffee.
In this logging town hit hard by cuts traceable to environmental protection, hundreds of workers still fan out into the woods each morning. At day's end, they earn perhaps $50 to $100 -- money that helps support the Tesoro, the Thriftway, Plaza Jalisco restaurant and other businesses that didn't dry up and blow away when the economy soured.
What's fueling this booming industry also is fairly likely to end up in your Valentine's Day bouquet: salal and other "floral greenery" harvested from Western Washington forests and shipped to florists as far away as Russia and Japan.
The rub is that much of the greenery sprinkled in today's bouquets is hot -- illegally plucked from public and private lands by undocumented workers. And that illegal harvest could harm delicate forest ecosystems.
Their working conditions are under fire by farm-worker advocates. And the state is battling greenery buyers, saying they should offer benefits and regular employment instead of insisting the pickers are independent contractors.
From Forks and other towns in the region, a daily parade of pickup trucks and vans snakes out across the countryside shortly after dawn, searching out remote but abundant fields of salal.
One recent morning, a cold, steady rain fell from a leaden sky at a salal patch northwest of Forks.
"This one is good," picker Hernan Cruz says in Spanish as he plucks a salal branch on land owned by Rayonier Inc., where he holds a picking permit. "It's very green. No yellow."
In five minutes, Cruz picks 80 cents worth of salal. At that pace, he'll make $75 this day -- about $16,500 for the 10-month growing season. That might not sound like a lot of money, but it far outstrips what Cruz could earn in his native El Salvador, where his 2-year-old daughter, Alba, lives with her grandmother.
Cruz, picking alongside his uncle and two cousins, says he hasn't seen his daughter since not long after she was born. But he can't return to El Salvador for a visit because, like most salal pickers, he's not in the United States legally. He might not be able to get back into this country.
Most pickers are Hispanic; some are Asian. By all accounts, this line of work, once a cottage industry of local mom-and-pops, has grown into a scene dominated by a large, loosely organized immigrant labor force.
So now, on an average day, about 13,600 pounds of salal is picked in the Pacific Northwest, estimates Jim Freed, a Washington State University professor who studies so-called "special forest products." Including salal, that harvest statewide is expected to reach a record $236 million this year, including mushrooms, beargrass, ferns, huckleberries, wildflowers, nuts, herbs and evergreen boughs to be made into Christmas wreaths.
When Cruz and his relatives are done picking for the day, they head back to Forks to Hop's Evergreens, a "brush shed" where they sell salal for 80 cents a bunch.
By early evening, the pile at Hop's towers over the workers' heads.
A short, stocky man with jet-black hair asks when he'll be paid.
"Mañana," answers the 62-year-old proprietor, George "Hop" Dhooghe, using one of his few Spanish words.
The worker persists.
"You want a draw?" Hop asks. He whips out an inch-thick wad of currency, hands the picker $100, then goes into the next room to write it down in his books.
Hop won't discuss his profit margin or the quantities involved but says he sells more greenery every year, earning "just enough to keep the wolf away from the door." Operators his size sell to larger packing houses, which also buy from pickers. They sell to distributors, who ship about a third to domestic markets and most of the rest to Europe.
Benefits for workers at issue
Some pickers probably are getting their haul from land that's off-limits, Hop concedes, but "you can't be out there watching every picker. As long as they come in here with a permit, it's legal for me to buy it." State and federal officials and most private landowners do not require proof of citizenship when issuing picking permits.
"A lot of the businesses in this town would be hurting without all these Mexicans," Hop says. Still, "There's a lot of people in town; they don't have the least idea what goes on here."
Like most brush-shed operators, Hop insists his pickers are not his employees. They're salesmen, selling a product.
Early last year, the state Department of Labor and Industries challenged that view and began investigating several of the larger brush sheds. Six large greenery buyers responded in October by filing a lawsuit in Mason County Superior Court, asking that a judge settle the long-simmering dispute. A hearing is set for June 6.
The situation is unusual, said James Johnson, the assistant attorney general representing the state in the case, because the pickers often aren't working on land owned by the brush-shed owner.
Because the pickers can sell to any brush shed they want, they should be considered independent contractors, says Dan Fazio, assistant director of government relations for the Washington State Farm Bureau.
"They're vendors," Fazio says. "They go and pick it and sell it to a shed."
A key issue for the brush sheds is not having to pay for disability insurance on the pickers, as well as Social Security and federal income taxes.
State Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, is backing the brush sheds, which he says make an important economic contribution to his district. His family-owned tree farm leases out brush-picking rights, Sheldon says. As executive director of the Economic Development Council of Mason County, Sheldon said he plans to hold hearings in April.
He says pickers aren't entitled to disability and unemployment insurance because, "I think it is the responsibility of someone who is self-employed to take care of themselves."
Workers do get hurt as they hack into the thick, sometimes steep forests that harbor salal and other greens. One even died last year when, separated from his co-workers and growing hypothermic, he climbed a tree and fell to the ground.
A few brush-picking companies formally employ the pickers, and say others should, too.
"Nobody's taking responsibility," says Dora Zaldivar of Centralia, who pays workers $10 to $12 an hour and covers their disability insurance. "All this money is passing through with no taxes being taken out."
The informal employment arrangements lead to bad conditions for workers, said Peter van Well, who runs Puyallup-based Golden Eagle Evergreens and, like Zaldivar, treats pickers as his employees. Last week, Van Well visited a camp where workers were picking beargrass.
"What is a 'camp'? A blue tarp and a roll of toilet paper," van Well says. "It is shameful what is happening."
Pickers laugh off citations
The environmental impact of thousands of people hacking at the woods has yet to be measured.
Studies on how salal picking affects the forest have been inconclusive, says Freed of WSU. Salal comes back after harvest, like a pruned rose bush. The fact that much of it's taken illegally is accepted by many, but authorities try to stop the practice.
Kristine Fairbanks, a Forest Service enforcement officer, estimates that up to three-quarters of greenery leaving the woods is harvested illegally. She spends half her time on thefts of non-timber products.
"I'm just looking," the pickers usually tell her. To which she replies: "You need a looking permit."
When Fairbanks catches black-market pickers, she usually issues a citation and seizes the foliage.
The deterrent effect is minimal. One man caught picking moss was hit with a $100 fine. "He just smiled and kind of laughed and got into his vehicle," an officer wrote in the citation.
The quantities can be substantial. In one bust, officers found more than 700 bags of illegally picked moss drying in a gravel pit.
Some of the most brazen stealing goes on at Olympic National Park, where it's illegal to pick anything.
"They're not targeting Olympic National Park, they're just going where they can find the most," says Curt Sauer, chief ranger.
He whips out sheets and sheets of slides -- evidence in criminal cases. "See this tree?" he says, pointing to a brown blob. "It should be green all the way up. That was three people in about two hours."
The bandits had stolen moss, a favorite park target. Unlike salal, moss takes years to grow back and plays a key role in the forest ecosystem, like providing nutrients to trees.
Clay Butler, a special agent for the park, says drivers will drop pickers off early in the day. They vanish into the woods. The van leaves and doesn't return until nighttime.
"They're pretty devious that way," Butler says.
Sauer says the stealing will end only when the public is informed. Until now, though, even florists have been largely clueless about it.
"We wouldn't know," says Seattle flower retailer J. Sten Crissy, past president of the Society of American Florists. "It's not branded. We call up and say 'Do you have salal?' And they say 'yes.' "
Salal (Gaultheria shallon)
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