To Every Weed Its Season

ERNEST B. FURGURSON

October 27, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Yesterday it was trash. Today it is treasure, so much in demand that there is a newly burgeoning rustling business, driven by estimates of its black market value.

In Washington state, the feds have set up a sting operation to catch those involved, much the way other such operations have caught jewel thieves and politicians on the take. With hidden recorders, agents taped a middleman buying the commodity and asking for more.

What is this suddenly hot property -- the in-crowd's latest drug from South America? Counterfeit expensive watches from East Asia? Atomic intelligence from the Middle East? No.

Yew bark, from the Pacific Northwest.

The bark of a particular species of yew is the key ingredient in a new treatment for ovarian cancer and is expected to work against other cancers as well. The trouble is, it takes a lot of bark to make a dose of this drug, named taxol. And because industrial loggers have trashed so much of it as worthless, there isn't a lot of Pacific yew left.

This combination of demand and scarcity has made yew bark a target for people who want to make a fast buck without the law. The process is inevitable:

When police make a drug bust, they like to set themselves up as heroes by boosting the alleged market worth of their haul -- "This 100 kilos of cocaine was the largest seizure ever made by county police, who said it had a street value of $$$ million." Hearing that, scads of new recruits rush into the drug trade.

The same goes for other illegal commodities, just because they are illegal. Wild elephants are slaughtered, their tusks hacked off and their bodies left to rot by men who sell the ivory on the black market. Black bears in this country are shot and butchered to get at their gall bladders, which are dried and ground up to make medicine many in the Far East consider a cure-all. Forest floors are dug up by ginseng hunters, who sell the root to resurrect the manly vigor of aging Japanese.

The shortage of yew bark inspired the black market and the federal crackdown reported by the Seattle Times. There would not have been such a shortage if the logging industry had not clear-cut so much of the national forest land in the Northwest to ship timber abroad. In the process, millions of yews and other non-commercial species were slashed and left because they were considered valueless.

The industry wails because it is not yet allowed to cut the last of the stands that shelter the northern spotted owl. To loggers, the endangered owl has become the symbol of government interference, of environmentalism rampant. How many jobs its protection will cost depends on whom you ask.

To the rest of us, the shrubby, unglamorous Pacific yew is a ready symbol of what happens when industry is allowed to roll on without regard for any natural being besides the one that drives its profits.

Because logging made it rare, the yew is now a black market commodity. We don't know yet what other species of plant or bug or bird in the Northwest or the tropical rain forest will offer medical miracles in the future. If they are destroyed with the forest, we will never know.

There are those who believe that every species, however obscure, deserves the right to live just because it was put on earth. To them, there are others who say, before trashing another tree or animal, "What good is it?" They mean what good is it to people, more specifically to their own personal interest.

The answer to that attitude is in the Pacific yew, which may cure cancer, and hundreds of once seemingly useless species that are helping keep people alive. The northern spotted owl, for instance, holds down the population of mice and other pests.

We have discovered only recently that pokeweed, one of the most familiar waste-ground plants of the countryside, has serious potential to combat the AIDS virus. In the past, its twice-boiled spring shoots made poke sallet for the poor, and its purple berries made substitute ink. But if anyone had stayed the hand of a man about to cut it, he likely would have asked, "What good is it?"

In Ecclesiastes it was said, "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven." Some day we may even find out why there is kudzu.

Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

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