State Department of Natural Resources officers Greg Erwin and Ron Whitehall can easily detect signs of illegal or hazardous activity on state forest lands.
Erwin and Whitehall are two of 13 law enforcement officers with the state agency, which manages 5.6 million acres of state forest land and aquatic reserves.
It’s their job to protect state forest lands and the timber value within — which the state agency is by law required to maintain and log for the benefit of state, county and local agencies — as well as to protect those who enjoy recreation on those lands.
“It’s a challenge because we cover so much area, so much land, and we never know what we’re going to be doing from one day to another,” Whitehall said.
Sarah Dettmer, recreation communications manager for Natural Resources, said the state agency is requesting funding from the Legislature to add two new officers to its team in 2019.
It’s uncertain where new officers would be placed if the money is provided, but there’s a need in the Olympic and South Puget Sound regions, Dettmer said.
Here in the northwest region of the state, Whitehall and Erwin are the officers who patrol Natural Resources lands in Skagit, Whatcom, Snohomish and northeast King counties, as well as Island and San Juan counties.
There are 580,000 acres of Natural Resources lands in that area, which spans from the Canadian border to Interstate 90 and from the San Juan Islands to Snoqualmie Pass, Whitehall said.
That’s about 906 square miles of state land — an area about 72 times the size of Mount Vernon.
In Skagit County alone, the officers are responsible for keeping an eye on popular recreation destinations on Blanchard Mountain and in Walker Valley, as well as lesser-known and undeveloped forest lands that abut private lands.
“We do patrol the areas and look for signs of wood theft or trespassing or other issues,” Whitehall said.
In addition to patrolling forest lands, Natural Resources officers respond to reports of injured or missing persons, investigate vehicle collisions on state lands, investigate crimes on state lands and respond to emergencies including forest fires and oil spills.
Each Natural Resources officer is outfitted with a truck for patrol, as well as being authorized to use off-road vehicles, boats and snowmobiles as needed.
Erwin and Whitehall each keep a dirt bike with them in case they need to access remote areas of the forest.
When a massive landslide devastated the community of Oso in March 2014, Erwin and Whitehall were among emergency responders on scene.
They’ve also been called on to participate in search and rescue operations, including for still-missing hiker Samantha Sayers who went missing in August at Vesper Peak south of Darrington.
When not responding to emergencies, Erwin and Whitehall are occupied with issues such as the public wandering from state lands onto private property and the growing problem of trash being left on state lands.
“One of our biggest problems right now and why we lock up a lot of state lands is the garbage dumping people do,” Erwin said.
Sometimes it’s remnants from an illegal camp. Other times it’s an abandoned RV or trailer, which can cost the state several thousand dollars to dispose of, Erwin said.
And like the trees they watch so closely, they said their focus changes with the seasons.
During the summer, there’s an emphasis on safe recreation and wildfire prevention. During winter, there’s an emphasis on safe hunting practices and illegal logging or wood theft.
“This time of year we see an uptick in a lot of wood theft because people are trying to heat their homes ... or selling it,” Erwin said. “They’re really stealing from the public when they’re doing that.”
He and Whitehall recently discovered two men illegally harvesting wood in Snohomish County. The officers estimate the men harvested $12,000 worth of Douglas fir.
Any illegal harvest takes away from the value of the state’s trust lands, which provide millions of dollars each year to support public schools, emergency services and social services such as libraries throughout the state.
Erwin said he sometimes goes to great lengths to catch wood thieves in action and has given chase into the forest on more than one occasion.
“I really get off the grid and hike into a lot of places to find people,” he said. “I have tracking skills ... and a lot of people are really surprised to see a cop deep in the woods.”