Logs vanish from beaches, raising concerns

Annie Strandberg with her dog Lexie sit next to one of the sawed-off root masses near her home at Gold Beach. - Amelia Heagerty/staff photo
Annie Strandberg with her dog Lexie sit next to one of the sawed-off root masses near her home at Gold Beach.
— image credit: Amelia Heagerty/staff photo

On a recent walk along the sandy shores near Gold Beach, Annie Strandberg counted a dozen sawed-off root masses with raw chainsaw wounds where logs had once been connected.

Some of the bulbous clumps were wider than her arm span. All were stark reminders of something disturbing that’s been happening on Maury Island.

A man, Strandberg said, has been coming by boat to Maury’s shores, sometimes under the cover of night, other times in broad daylight, and robbing the beaches of enormous driftwood logs — logs that are critical to the nearshore environment. The driftwood serves as a natural buffer between man and nature — simpler and more graceful bulkheads than the blocky concrete that marks some properties.

But driftwood logs, which bury themselves slowly in the sand after years of tides, winds, erosion and rain, play an important role in the local ecosystem as well. They’re a key piece in the food chain because they provide habitat to insects, which are eaten by passing salmon.

Residents of Gold Beach first reported an unusual occurrence this summer, when enormous logs that had sat sedentary on their private beaches for months or years began to float away. Soon, they began keeping watch, and a disturbing picture emerged: A man was harvesting driftwood logs from their beaches.

He’d visit a beach wielding a chainsaw and sever a hefty log — some up to 80 feet long — from its root mass, neighbors said. Then, at high tide, he’d return, tie the log up with rope and drag it to a staging area he’d set up next some abandoned pier pilings. After gathering several logs, he tethered them together and pulled them away, south around Maury Island toward the Port of Tacoma, said Strandberg, a longtime Gold Beach resident.

So brazen were his efforts that residents were able to snap a series of photos documenting one of the incidents.

“I went to work one day, and I came home, and he had sawed and taken away two logs right here,” said Strandberg, sitting in her living room overlooking the beach.

She’s one of at least four property owners in Gold Beach who have had logs taken from their beaches. King County, which owns a waterfront park to the north, and Glacier Northwest, with property to the south, have also fallen victim to log theft.

In September, King County Sheriff’s deputies confronted the man while he was allegedly taking logs on King County beach property. The man wasn’t cited for his actions at the time, in part because the deputy on the scene was unsure what laws were being broken.

But the man now knows that harvesting logs from others’ property is illegal, said King County Sheriff’s Deputy Rick Jackson, and if the man is spotted taking logs again, he will be cited for his actions — a misdemeanor charge that could result in a fine and/or jail time.

This is an unusual occurrence, at least in King County, said Sgt. John Urquhart, who said he’d never heard of anything like it before.

But the dozens of logs taken this summer can’t be put back, as Strandberg and other neighbors noted. And they’re fearful that the thefts will continue, though the inclement weather of fall and winter will likely make the operation impossible in the coming months.

Strandberg’s home is set back from the water, and driftwood acts as a natural bulkhead for her property. She worries that the string of driftwood thefts — which have been reported as far north as Maury Island Marine Park and as far south as Piner Point — could be harmful not just for private property owners like her, but for the delicate nearshore ecosystem as well.

Driftwood “is necessary for the life cycle of the surf smelt, which is at the bottom of the food chain, so we need it,” she said. “There are places where there’s nothing between the shore and the water, and that all used to be driftwood.”

Vashon Maury Island Land Trust executive director Tom Dean said driftwood logs are necessary, and their removal is an issue Islanders should take note of.

“Driftwood is an important part of the beach ecosystem,” he said.

Juvenile salmon passing Vashon’s shores often venture into shallow waters, seeking insects — including those insects that make their home on driftwood.

The wood is also essential to the integrity of the beach, he added.

“The driftwood is part of the beach, structurally,” Dean said. “It lays at the top and works its way in, and dune grass grows around it. It’s important to keep that natural slope the way it is. If you take (logs) out, you can sometimes cause erosion ... and ruin the way the beach is shaped.”

After two logs were taken from Strandberg’s back yard, she found out that their theft was illegal.

It’s a violation of King County Code, she learned, to take driftwood from private or public beaches that are in critical areas. All of Gold Beach’s waterfront is within the Maury Island Aquatic Reserve, an area that was officially recognized by the state for its ecological sensitivity and significance in 2004.

Gold Beach resident Trevi Housholder is among those who have had logs taken from her beach.

“We’ve wanted to keep the logs in place as a natural bulkhead,” she said. “It was definite that the guy pulled the logs off the property, because there was no way they would have floated out there.”

The logs’ removal is a problem that’s at least a year old, Strandberg said, but the thefts were happening at first on Glacier Northwest’s property, south of Gold Beach, and at King County’s Maury Island Marine Park, north of Gold Beach — areas that are usually deserted. The thefts there went unreported, though the operation’s impact is evident — sawed-off root bulbs, some 10 feet around, pepper the Glacier beach, where erosion is already taking a heavy toll in some areas.

“I always thought, ‘Surely he would never expand his operation to the rest of Maury Island,’” Strandberg said.

When the problem came to her own beach, she took action, calling the U.S. Coast Guard, Port of Tacoma, Tacoma Police, King County Department of Development and Environmental Services and the King County Sheriff’s Office with little success.

At first, none of the agencies believed they could help Strandberg address the problem, she said. The Port of Tacoma said it wasn’t their jurisdiction; Tacoma Police said they were too busy. The U.S. Coast Guard told her to call them if she saw a boat towing logs, and when she did, Coast Guard officials told her they couldn’t help, Strandberg said.

The Sheriff’s Office established that it was its jurisdiction, and deputies have been dispatched to Maury beaches at least three times this summer to address the issue of log theft, said Deputy Jackson. He spoke with the suspect at Maury Island Marine Park Sept. 23, according to a police report.

The man, a Tacoma resident, told Jackson he takes the logs he collects to a chipper in Edmonds, where he is paid for the driftwood. The deputy informed the suspect his activities were illegal, he said, and the man seemed cooperative. Jackson added that he’s hopeful the issue won’t come up again, but if it does, he’s prepared to cite the perpetrator for his crime.

“The county code has established that it is important for the environment to keep the driftwood here,” said Strandberg. “It’s frustrating we haven’t been able to stop it.”

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