Norm Benson: My Former Beat – The Dark Woods

Forestry combines art and science, and grapples with the ecological riddles of our time; but it’s also a job.

Norm Benson is a Registered Professional Forester. During his thirty years for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal-Fire), he was manager of Boggs Mountain State Forest, he coordinated Cal-fire’s resource management training, enforced the state’s forest practice laws, and performed “other duties as required,” including fighting forest fires. Besides being a Licensed Professional Forester in the state of California, he’s a retired peace officer. He currently is breaking into freelancing.

My Former Beat – The Dark Woods

Me at Boggs Mountain State Forest.

In my 35-year career with Cal-Fire, I worked amid the chaos of life and death competitions in which only the strong and cunning survived.

My beat was a place where none gave mercy, a place where none showed remorse, and a place where greed was the norm. Every underling plotted regime change. Some worked to create explosive conditions, and then after the fire, amid the scorched earth, move in, taking advantage of the devastation they helped create. Once in place, they created conditions for more upheaval. Others insinuated themselves into the background while siphoning off resources, biding their time, waiting for those above to die off so then they could take over the top spots. Some poisoned their competitors. And big and small, each used the carcasses of the former inhabitants without regard. And those were just the plants.

The above description of the forest is true. Each order, family, genus, species, and variety, display survival strategies to perpetuate its kind. Like the climate and weather, nothing in nature remains static.


I’m a forester by trade (and I’ve yet to find any forester who preferred the term ‘forest ranger’). Forestry combines art and science to grapple with the ecological riddles of our time where the answers are not always clear-cut. Forestry can be dirt simple: you grow trees, you cut trees, you plant trees, all the while trying to mimic nature who is definitely a muthuh. I’ve planted thousands of seedlings during my life, some grew, some didn’t. Like so much of existence, a trivial decision determines life or death; it all boils down to location-and luck.


I worked as a forester for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal-Fire). Cal-Fire is 90% fire department that suppresses and investigates structure fires and wildland fires, 5% State Fire Marshal, and 5% forestry.

Most of the foresters in Cal-Fire enforce California’s forest and fire laws, primarily the Z’Berg-Nejedly Forest Practice Act of 1973. Along with CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act), there is CESA (California Endangered Species Act), and other environmental rules, roles, and responsibilities, that must be followed. The Forest Practice Act is the equivalent of CEQA. These laws of man are meant to keep the laws of nature from going too far off the rails.

The Byzantine Environment of Environmental Protection

Madison could have been writing about natural resource protection laws when he wrote in the Federalist Papers (1788), “It will be of little avail to the people that laws are made by men of their own choice if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood…or undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is today, can guess what it will be tomorrow.” The rules governing our environment overlap, becoming more complex and more arcane with every new lawsuit. In 1973, the rulebook and a THP could fit in a forester’s back pocket, now each tome’s size resembles a Michener saga.

According to California’s Public Resources Code, all harvesting on California’s nearly eight million acres of non-federal forestland must have a Timber Harvesting Plan (THP) drawn up and submitted by a Registered Professional Forester (RPF). An RPF has at least seven years’ forestry experience and has passed a comprehensive test (only one-third of those who take the test pass). The length of a THP varies, depending on its complexity, from 100 pages to more than 500 pages. The more complex THP can drop a lawyer at close range. The RPF submits the plan to Cal-Fire. Then a team composed of a member from Cal-Fire, California Geological Services, Fish and Game, and Water Quality reviews the plan for completeness, clarity, and its impact on the environment. Public comments are added to the review team’s concerns. Mitigations to concerns are proposed, agreed to, and placed into the THP. (More on the process here.) Cal-Fire’s Forest Practice Inspectors base all enforcement actions on what is in the approved plan. The Department approves 500 to 1400 THPs each year.

Enforcement of the THP

Cal-Fire recognizes that a THP’s complexity can overwhelm the average logger trying to do a reasonable job and make a buck, so department policy directs inspectors to prevent and deter forest practice violations. The inspector often writes letters and notices to give the logger a chance to fix any fixable omissions or commissions. Only when these prove inadequate does a Forest Practice Inspector write a citation.

Offenses are Misdemeanors

You may question why foresters checking silviculture (basically the harvest/regeneration methods), cumulative effects, and esoteric biological arcane need to be peace officers. The rules of evidence collection still apply. And an enforcement action is a confrontation. Additionally, all offenses are misdemeanors (something that requires the state legislature to amend since it’s in the original act that all violations of the FPA are misdemeanors1).

The department may choose to take the case civilly rather than in a criminal court system, depending on flagrancy of the violation, longevity of the damage, and the strength of the evidence (civil only requires preponderance of evidence – 51% – not beyond a reasonable doubt).

Into the Dark Woods

The Dark Woods

In 2001, on my first day as the new forest manager of Boggs Mountain Demonstration State Forest, I took a call from a Napa County parole officer. What follows is my recollection:

“I think you may have one of my runaways camping on your forest,” the officer said. “A guy who assaulted his father-in-law with a knife and is not supposed to leave the county.”

I’d been out to our small campground and talked with a couple. They and two kids were staying in a tent. I had dutifully filled out a registration. While California State Parks charge for their campsites, camping at Boggs Mountain, and three other state forests, costs nothing and people can stay fourteen days at a stretch. There’s another name for state forest campers-homeless tweakers.

I had one camper, a veteran of Grenada, who suffered from PTSD and schizophrenia. He sent faxes to the White House, claiming credit for earthquakes and tornados and threatening to inflict similar plagues upon the White House if they didn’t repent.

“Who are you looking for?” I asked.

The parole officer gave me the name. I breathed a sigh of relief. “Nobody by that name. Only one camper registered; someone by the name of [x].”

“That’s the girlfriend. His ex-wife got tipped they were staying on Boggs.”

I called Lake County Sheriff’s. They sent up two patrol cars. We met at my office. By now it was pitch black outside. We agreed I would drive through the campground to reconnoiter. The two units would come in after I confirmed the suspect’s presence. Try to drive by slowly without looking like you’re driving by slowly. Anyway, the tent was there, the car wasn’t. The deputies staked out the site but the suspect had left.

In the Hero’s Journey, entering the “woods” symbolizes leaving the familiar and fully committing to the adventure. This part of the myth is called “the Initiation.” It is during the initiation the hero meets allies and enemies. I met both in my work in the woods.

Next time, we can talk about Cal-Fire, forestry, “timber beasts,” “deadheads,” “Section 37,” “Scandinavian gunpowder,” “wildcat crews,” “widowmakers,” “bushelers,” “catskinners,” “gyppos,” or anything else you like.

I’m guessing that all this is in a part of the forest you’ve never seen.

1. If you think that’s crazy, it’s a felony to steal fifty pounds of walnuts-the farm lobby is big in California.

Norm’s website is And you are invited to visit the Timberati blog at because forestry combines art and science, and grapples with the ecological riddles of our time; but it’s also a job.

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Castle: The Double Down – A Review

Let’s just skip the preliminary fluff and get down to business. After watching this episode I’m in no mood for making nice.

The title of this week’s episode is Double Down. Perhaps the network should have opted for calling it Double Trouble. We’ll get into the reasons why in a second. First, I have to say the comedic aspect of the show was in overdrive. I have to wonder, though, if they have a new writer because this episode was unlike any other. I’m not saying the show was better or worse than usual, just different. Maybe even a little odd. But it was what is was – a bit of a disappointment for me.

The Highs and Lows (Remember, this is a review of the police procedure and a little of the forensics, not the overall show. I’m a big fan of Castle and Beckett. Great chemistry. Even the supporting cast is pretty doggone good. Well, with the exception of one cast member who insists upon spouting off BS forensic material. Maybe she’s just reading her lines, I don’t know. But if I were her, I’d certainly want to at least be as good as everyone else on the show. I did read an interview where she stated the show has a medical examiner as a consultant – a real M.E. who offered to show her around a real morgue. She refused the offer, but who could blame her? I’ve attended many autopsies and not one has been a pleasant experience. Still, do they not listen to their experts? Anyway, here goes. Double Trouble…I mean Double Down.

– Castle mentions the craziness that comes with a full moon. Most cops, ER personnel, and other creatures who work the graveyard shift will nod their heads in agreement with that sentiment. Trouble follows a full moon, and weird calls normally come in during those times. Good stuff.

– The full moon scene was a little over the top, with cops wrestling crazies whose clothing seemed to come off quite easily during the commotion. At one point a new female detective, Roselyn Karpowski (she played a good part in this show), landed on Beckett’s desk, on top of a struggling suspect. While there she spoke to Beckett in a calm, easy tone. I know this was way over the top, but cops are so used to fighting, tussling, wrestling, handcuffing, Tasering, etc., that it is just a matter-of-fact occurrence to be in the middle of a big brawl. So good stuff, here. Take this one to the bank. Cops don’t get excited easily when faced with danger. After it’s over, maybe. But when it’s happening they’re right there, toe-to-toe with the best of them.

– The medical examiner working a homicide in a cocktail dress???? No way. Even if she didn’t have time to change she’d have put on a lab coat or other protective clothing. I should not have complimented her last week, because it all went downhill from this really low spot in her night. Geez… I actually felt bad for her. But, as they say on American Idol when the train wreck happens…She looked fantastic.

– Becket told the M.E. to check for fibers and hair. Hmm…I don’t know a single M.E. who’d have to be told that. Nor do I know one who’d take orders from a detective. However, I’m sure Beckett felt she needed to guide this one through the hoops.

– This isn’t procedure, but I had a nice chuckle when Castle said, “The person who killed her also killed the English language.” Those aren’t exactly his words, but you get the idea.

– There was a new coroner at one of the crime scenes. He was very believable, in this scene. But it didn’t last. More in a second.

– Loved the coroner’s “Looky-loo” comment. That’s a nickname used by cops for the people who find it entertaining to observe crime scenes, car accidents, and train wrecks. Again the coroner’s character is pretty good up to this point.

– The betting scenes in the show were very distracting for me. It was cute, but I think they went way overboard with it.

– Okay, here’s where I wanted to kick the TV screen, shout four letter words, and flush the remote down the toilet (after turning off the show).

The two pathologists, the M.E. and the coroner (I’m still not sure why they have one of each. Is it like that in NYC? Dr. Jonathan Hayes, are you out there?), made the announcement that they’d found a diatom on the victim’s bodies that was specific to a single body of water, but they didn’t know where that body of water was located. WHAT???

How in the world could they say the diatom was specific to place they couldn’t identify. If they couldn’t identify the place, then how could they say the diatom is specific to that place.

Hmm…If they knew the diatom could have come from only one place in the world then they must know where that place is. Otherwise, they’d found something but don’t know where they hell it came from.

Where’s Charlie Brown when you need him?

Wait, I think I know the name of the place. It’s called Conundrum.

Doggone it. You can’t discover something that’s only found in one place on earth if you haven’t discovered that place. It’s 2am right now and this crazy-making stuff is really frying my brain.

Oh, it gets worse.

– This started when the M.E. stated a forensic detail popped up during autopsy. That detail was locating the precious missing-link diatom (A cubic inch of diatomite contains millions of diatom fistulas. In other words, they’re pretty darn tiny. A really large one can be as big as a half-millimeter). To begin with, a medical examiner would have to be searching specifically for a diatom during autopsy to have found one, or even a hundred of them. This is not part of a normal autopsy. And so what if they did? What would that mean? That someone was near a river, the ocean, a pond, a mud puddle, damp places, or close to some soil? Yes, diatoms can be found in common soil!

Next, who would have identified this wacky organism in the morgue? Would the pathologist automatically know this as part of their medical training?

Oh, we’re really rolling downhill now…

The medical examiner informs Beckett that the victims had to have come in direct contact with this one of kind water in order for the diatom to have been on the body. Triple hogwash! Water evaporates. How did she know where the diatom came from? How did she know it wasn’t transferred from another person, or in the mist in the air?  Man, I’m really aiming the remote at the toilet now.

Castle suggests the water came from an aquarium in the victim’s office. Okay, he’s a layperson feeding off the garbage being tossed to him by the “pros.” Now the coroner adds his two cents to this bizarre scene. He says the diatoms were dispersed into the room by the aquarium pump and anyone in the room would be contaminated with the little fellers. What? Is it like a rain forest in that office? Shoot me now!

Back to the diatoms in a minute.

– Beckett and crew (By the way, the two detectives are much improved this season) pull into an alley to serve a search warrant. Good idea, but sliding patrols cars sideways into an alley with flashing red and blue lights isn’t a good way to sneak up on someone. The bad guys would probably toss the evidence before you could say “diatom.”

– During the car sliding/red and blue light fiasco a bunch of street kids are heard yelling Five-0. This is good. That’s what the real hoodlums say when cops roll into the hood.

– If the detective holding the shotgun in this scene had been forced to shoot during the raid, I don’t believe he’d have been able to hold on to his weapon. A shotgun has quite a bit of recoil, so it’s best to hold the butt of the gun against your shoulder when ready to fire. He was holding his shotgun like you see the SWAT guys carrying their automatic weapons. Different animals entirely.

– Back to the dreaded diatom. As it turns out, the thing came from the Hudson River. Yeah, that Hudson. The body of water that’s never been discovered according to the M.E. The Hudson that New Yorkers are exposed to every single day of their lives. This is the mysterious body of water that could only contain this special diatom. Nay, Nay. The Hudson River is connected to:

* Opalescent Brook
* Cedar River
* Indian River
* Boreas River
* Schroon River
* Sacandaga River
* Mill Creek
* Battenkill River
* Hoosic River
* Mohawk River
* Normans Kill
* Catskill Creek
* Esopus Creek
* Rondout Creek
* Roeliff-Jansen Kill
* Crum Elbow Creek
* Wappingers Creek
* Fishkill Creek
* Moodna Creek
* Quassaick Creek
* Croton River
* Pocantico River
* Sparkill Creek
* Wicker’s Creek
* Saw Mill River

Well, you get the idea.

And now to wrap this up…

– Beckett and crew question the two murder suspects, separately (good), and trick the weaker of the two into confessing by saying the alpha crook squealed like a pig. It works like that in real life, too.


At least everyone looked really nice this week. And Castle was pretty funny.

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Friday’s Heroes: Remembering The Fallen

Lance Corporal Jonathan Nash, 41

South Carolina Highway Patrol

Lance Corporal Jonathan Nash was killed while leading a charity ride in memorial of a fellow trooper, Hardy Godbold, who died in a 1992 automobile accident that occurred during the pursuit of a fleeing criminal. Corporal Nash was leading the ride on his department motorcycle when a vehicle pulled out in front of him, causing the fatal accident. Ironically, Corporal Nash’s death occurred on the same stretch of highway as Trooper Godbold’s.

Trooper Jonathan Nash’s Memorial Service

Photos –, Anderson S.C.

* Thanks to ODMP

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