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Fla. police and poachers play cat-and-mouse over prized palmetto berries

AP National Writer

LOXAHATCHEE SLOUGH NATURAL AREA, Fla.- Charles Robinson, a deputy in the Palm Beach County wildlands unit, was well into the fifth hour of his stakeout of the remote swamp when, suddenly, a head popped out of the thicket.

Robinson, clad in green fatigues, armed with Glock pistol, taser and semiautomatic rifle, jumped out of his 4-by-4 off-roader. "Hey!" he shouted. "What are you doing out there?"

The man, soaked from the waist down, wore a cap, blue jeans, boots, gloves and a long-sleeved, flannel shirt. Sweat dripped from his eyebrows. He smiled, big and friendly, Robinson would later recall.

"I feeeeshing!"


Short and sunbrowned, the man stepped forward, his boots squishing. "Yes," he said, "Me feeeesh!" He held his arms out. "Big feeeesh, too!"

Robinson wasn't biting; he was a seasoned veteran, after all. In 21 years, he'd been a tactical agent, corrections officer, narcotics task force agent, among other things.

But this was no escaped felon, drug trafficker, or would-be assassin. The sweetly foul stench emanating from the man's clothes was the telltale clue:

Robinson had himself a berry poacher.

A saw palmetto berry poacher, to be exact: one of legions of determined, fearless, all-weather itinerants who, each fall, fan out across the vacant lots, wetlands, cattle pastures, roadsides and parklands of Florida to collect the ubiquitous, olive-shaped fruit.

This time, Operation Berry Picker was a success _ the poacher and his partner (who popped up moments later to see if the coast was clear) were arrested and charged with violating County Ordinance 94-13, which makes it illegal to remove even a pine cone from a natural area.

The two pickers were convicted and fined for trying to make off with five burlap sacks of berries.

Berry patrol, Robinson says wistfully, "reminds me of my tactical days, when you'd sit and sit and sit, doing surveillance on a bad guy for hours, and then _ BAM! _ pounce!"

This heightened rigor against saw palmetto pickers is fairly novel in Florida; in most counties, law enforcement ranks berry poaching pretty low on the list of daily concerns. (Marijuana cultivation, auto theft, cattle rustling and home burglaries still get more attention.)

But that is bound to change, says Kristen Sella, an environmental analyst for Palm Beach County, as development of Florida's wildlands gains momentum and makes native species such as the saw palmetto harder and harder to find. Today, private developers are transforming huge swaths of privately owned, unprotected marshlands and forests _ where saw palmettos thrive _ into golf courses, condos, gated communities and strip malls.

"Right now, we're ahead of the game on this kind of stuff," Sella says, "but as other counties see more and more of their natural lands disappear, they may get their own law enforcement more involved in protecting the saw palmetto."

No more than a decade ago, ranchers, farmers and homeowners considered saw palmetto bushes a weedy nuisance. Then studies began linking the berries to treatment for enlarged prostates, which turned the saw palmetto into an overnight darling of the dietary supplement industry and set off a feverish rush to pick them.

In February, researchers at the San Francisco VA Medical Center reported that saw palmetto was no more effective than dummy capsules in easing prostate discomfort.

But doctors in Europe routinely prescribe the supplement. And it has become the fifth most popular medicinal herb in America, according to the National Institutes of Health _ and a multimillion-dollar, worldwide industry.

Last year, more than 5 million pounds were gathered in Florida, where most of the world's wild saw palmettos grow. The berry, which once typically brought the picker 10 cents a pound, now fetches anywhere between 30 cents and $2 a pound, depending on the time of season, the size of the year's crop, and market demand. (Several years ago, the price reached $3 a pound on speculation that the saw palmetto might help reduce hair loss in men.)

Unfortunately for Robinson, the slightest uptick in the price of saw palmetto brings a wave of determined harvesters, which, in turn, brings a flood of trespassing complaints from startled ranchers, farmers and rural homeowners _ which, ultimately, makes Operation Berry Picker an around-the-clock slog.

From August to November, high season, "we're always busy," Robinson says. Alas, even after 10 hours of mucking through swamps, glades and pine forests, he and his crew often return to base to find a fresh batch of trespassing complaints awaiting them.

As Bob Schooley, another member of the wildlands task force, notes, "There's an army of pickers out there." And a lot of wildland to watch: Palm Beach County, the second largest east of the Mississippi, has some 80,000 acres of natural areas under county, state and federal control. There are just six deputies to patrol them.

It helps to be well-equipped, of course.

For berry patrol, each deputy dons green fatigues or camouflage, army boots, a black motorcycle helmet or military "Bonnie Hat," heavy duty gloves, and a belt with bush necessities: automatic pistol, taser, pepper spray, baton, night-vision goggles, infrared binoculars, high-powered flashlight, cell phone, bullet pack and infrared strobe light, "so that violators don't notice when we signal a helicopter," says John Gibson, a member of the unit.

To roam the badlands, the deputies use six all-terrain vehicles and six 4-by-4 off-roaders. Most impressive are two Ford F250s, with their 38-inch tires, heavy duty winches and satellite antennas. They hit speeds of 90 mph, though speeding in dense brush is generally avoided, Gibson adds, "because it's hard to stop them once you get them going."

Each off-roader comes with a laptop, printer, and GPS mapping capability. ("It's easy to get lost in the bush," Robinson says. "There are no road signs _ well, no roads either.") Twelve-gauge shotguns are stowed in a floor case; collapsible, AR-15 "Bushmasters," as the semiautomatic rifles are known, are fixed to the ceiling for easy access.

And then there's the Encore _ a jeep, normally built for the military, that can drive for miles through swamps, submerged.

"With what we have," Schooley says, "we're able to cover the areas pretty well." Still, during the berry picking season, "we really have to hustle." Adds Robinson, "That's true. But you can't go too fast. Sometimes the bush is so thick, you drive right by pickers without knowing it."

Under such circumstances, the deputies radio for a helicopter.

From the air, using the latest Forward Looking Infrared technology, crews can spot the most elusive of berry pickers, day or night, no matter how thick the thickets may be.

"We take this seriously," Robinson says. "The message we want to send is that Palm Beach County won't tolerate this berry picking."

And yet, the pickers keep coming.

They are men, women, children of all ages and sizes. Many are Mexican, Guatemalan, Haitian. Some are in the United States legally; many aren't.

These are the same people who follow the trail from coast to coast, season after season, gathering America's harvests for pennies on the pound. By late July, when the orange and tomato seasons end in Florida, most pickers move on to Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, or Pennsylvania.

But some stay behind, waiting for the berries to bloom.

By mid-August, "they're all desperate," says Lucas Benitez, 30, of Guerrero, Mexico. Thirteen years ago, he co-founded the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a farmworkers group in the main hub of the berry market on the western edge of the Everglades.

"The tomato fields are picked clean. There are no more oranges on the trees. Families are eating crackers for dinner. It's all they can do to hang on for the start of the palmetto season."

It's all they can do to collect the berries.

Humid heat, which turns glades into steam baths even on cloudy days, has a way of making pickers walk in circles, aimlessly, or faint. (Pickers wear long-sleeved shirts, jeans, boots and heavy gloves to protect against mosquitoes, sea lice, fire ants and the palmetto's thorny needles.)

Rattlesnakes, which wrap themselves around the palmetto trunks to avoid the roiling sun, strike at least a handful of pickers each year. And, says Miguel Garcia, of Villermosa, Mexico, "you don't know what fear is until you have come face-to-face with an alligator."

Garcia, 34, recalls wading through chest-high swamp water last August, a 100-pound sack of berries on his back, when a full-sized alligator surfaced not 10 feet in front of him. Lazily, it blinked its eyes, opened its jaws.

Stock-still, Garcia asked his four companions in a whisper, "Anybody know how to scare a gator?"

"Frogs," came a reply, "they don't like frogs."

So Garcia and his fellow pickers went about scooping up frogs and tossing them at the alligator until the beast shut its mouth and slipped underwater. Just as Garcia let out a relieved sigh, the alligator resurfaced.

"All right," he muttered. "Any other bright ideas?"

The alligator, he says, let them go with no fuss. The authorities are not so easy to shake.

"A friend of mine last year got arrested and had to pay $200 for picking berries. Why was that? I don't think of myself as a thief. All I'm doing is picking God's produce, trying to make a little extra to send to my wife and two little boys in Mexico."

Bernabe Morales, 26, a native of Chiapas, Mexico, has picked saw palmetto for three years. To him, it makes little sense that so much time and money is spent on protecting berries from people who are trying to make an honest living.

"There's a lot of laws here in America that I probably don't know about," he says, "but I do know there's no law anywhere that says a man has to starve."

Lynn Butler, an officer in the Collier County sheriff's office, empathizes. "They really work hard," she says. "I think they get so into their picking, they get mesmerized by it, and don't realize sometimes that they've wandered on to somebody's private property."

"Yes, the pickers are stealing," says her colleague, Lt. Scott Stamets. "But a lot of times, the property is vacant and the owner doesn't even know that anybody has been on their property taking berries."

That's missing the point, says Robinson. If a picker gets a private landowner's permission to harvest berries, "that's one thing. But if they're doing it on protected natural areas, we're going to have to enforce the laws."

And so, come August, he expects the game to pick up where it left off in November.

The poachers, he says, are always changing tactics: they communicate with cell phones now, camp out for days in the bush, harvest only at night ("moonlighting," as some pickers call it), and pay drivers to drop them off and pick them up at predetermined times and locations.

Some pickers park their pickups in the lots of shopping malls in rural areas, stroll into the malls, pretending to be customers, slip out rear entrances, and head off into adjacent woods.

Last year, the wildlands task force caught about 85 pickers. "That's probably just a 1 percent slice of the total picker work force in this county," Robinson concedes. Still, from season to season, he says, "we've been narrowing the trap."

He, for one, has learned over the last several years to differentiate between tracks left by wild hogs and those left by humans. And every day, he gets a little sharper at tracking the poachers. "Nowadays," he says, "I feel like an Indian."

Other times not _ like when he inadvertently steps on a nest of yellow jackets. "Thousands of them come out at you when you do that," he says. "It's not a pleasant sight."

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