KAI RYSSDAL: That wreath you've got on the garage door? And the long garland snaking up the bannister? They're the end products of an industry known as forest greens. It sounds obscure. But the desire this time of year to bring a little bit of the outdoors in is a half-billion-dollar industry in the Pacific Northwest. And the supply chain that ends with you at the local hardware store has its roots in a largely underground economy. From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Sam Eaton reports.
SAM EATON: Jim Padden's roadside cluster of warehouses on Washington's Kitsap Peninsula looks like an outsourced version of Santa's workshop. Seasonal workers from Mexico and Central America weave piles of branches into elaborate holiday decorations.
JIM PADDEN: Here's a crew making some wreaths — coronas, in Spanish, they call these. We're doing some candy canes and crosses right here. Those are over-the-door arches we're making. There are some Juniper wreaths they're making there . . . .
Padden's annual sales of forest greens exceed $7 million a year. And that pales in comparison to some of the larger wholesale warehouses that dot the region.
JAMES FREED: The backbone of the industry is global.
Washington State University economist James Freed has followed the forest greens trade for three decades.
FREED: It's truckloads. It's containers. It's 20,000 boxes of this and a hundred thousand boxes of that. It's a commodity-based industry.
The wholesale market for wild forest greens in the Pacific Northwest is about a fourth the size of Washington's famed apple industry. But the two businesses couldn't be more different. Labor practices and environmental impacts on farms are closely monitored. Out in the woods they go largely unchecked.
FREED: It's like grabbing smoke. It's almost unenforceable.
Freed says what began as a handful of rural folks trying to make a few extra bucks has now become a sophisticated underground economy rife with violent turf battles.
Son Chau, a Vietnamese immigrant, has picked forest greens on the same land for nearly two decades. He says backwoods confrontations have become all too common. Four years ago a crew of poachers nearly shot him.
SON CHAU: I say what are you doing here? They say, "Who are you?" I say, "Yes, this my lease." They take the gun, shove in my head.
The poachers spared Chau's life, but took his entire day's harvest. Illicit pickers often strip the limbs clean from cedar trees, leaving them to die.
WSU's James Freed likens the frenzy to the gold rush. He says there are more than 175 different forest materials that can be sold, from yew bark for the cancer drug Taxol to decorative moss.
FREED: It's the purest sense of capitalism. You work, you get paid. And if you do a good product, you get paid more.
But unbridled capitalism brings its own set of problems. There's no way to police forest permits. And overloaded trucks have tumbled off remote roads, killing immigrant laborers. That's led to a fierce legal battle between the state and warehouses that buy the greens.
Jose Rodriguez with the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries says government can no longer turn a blind eye.
JOSE RODRIGUEZ: This is a vulnerable population, these workers out there. They come from another country, usually Mexico, Central America or Southeast Asia. They don't have command of the language in most cases.
Rodriguez wants warehouse owners like Jim Padden to consider pickers as employees and to follow state regulations — everything from seatbelt laws to minimum wage. But Padden says the increased costs would shutter the industry.
PADDEN: All these towns in the whole Northwest anymore are hingent on this type of work. All these people you see here, they buy gas, they buy groceries, they buy everything. It's a ripple effect.
Take that away he says, and that spells economic death for these impoverished Northwest logging towns where opportunity is scarce.
On Washington's Kitsap Peninsula, I'm Sam Eaton for Marketplace.