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Man of the Woods

POLK COUNTY -- About three quarters of Polk County's 650 square miles are uninhabited, covered in timber and logging roads.

Polk County Sheriff's Deputy Eric Shepherd unlocks a gate on a logging road near Laurel Mountain on Dec. 13.

Photo by Pete Strong

Polk County Sheriff's Deputy Eric Shepherd unlocks a gate on a logging road near Laurel Mountain on Dec. 13.

December 26, 2012

POLK COUNTY -- About three quarters of Polk County's 650 square miles are uninhabited, covered in timber and logging roads.

Those seemingly endless miles are Polk County Deputy Eric Shepherd's office.

Shepherd holds the position of forest deputy, an unusual job that can be described as patrol, with a healthy dose of outdoors adventure. Along with a working knowledge of logging roads, it requires a sturdy truck with a functioning radio.

Shepherd's typical shift involves driving a web of thousands of miles of forest roads that would chew up most passenger cars in a few months. On uneventful shifts, he may not encounter a single person who isn't a logger, thus the radio is his best friend some days.

Most people who venture out into Shepherd's part of the county are purposely seeking that kind of isolation for hunting or target shooting -- in most cases.

"People come out here and assume they are all alone," he said. "They are really surprised when they see me come around the corner."

For those with more nefarious intentions, Shepherd said each such encounter works to help spread the message that there is a deputy on the road in those areas -- even if the roads are muddy gravel logging roads leading to nowhere.

That's why the unique position was created.

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Timber companies with property in Polk County, along with the U.S. Department of Interior's Bureau of Land Management and the Oregon Department of Forestry created a cooperative to pay for half of the forest deputy's salary to have a law enforcement presence in the woods.

Shepherd's main responsibilities are to deter illegal dumping, vandalism, trespassing and theft on timberlands.

Polk County Oregon Sheriff

Polk County Oregon Sheriff

It's a one-man mission, which required a shift in law enforcement philosophy for the 20-year veteran of the Polk County Sheriff's Office.

"I really have to consider where I'm at when I'm talking to people," Shepherd said. "My backup is a long, long ways away. ... You work differently. If I get into a situation out there that I don't feel real comfortable with I have no problem backing out of it and getting other people there. I know how the people got there. I know likely how they are getting out. And there is always another day."

He can only recall one such situation in the nearly two years he's worked the forests.

Shepherd said it was well after dark and he was helping a man change a flat tire on Valsetz Road. The guy was nervous and kept looking into the forest, giving Shepherd an uneasy feeling.

The man was able to get back on the road, but Shepherd later heard through the grapevine there was a passenger in the vehicle who had a warrant. The passenger had been hiding in the woods the entire time Shepherd helped with the tire.

Polk County Sheriff

Photo by Pete Strong

Polk County Sheriff's Deputy Eric Shepherd checks a timberland ownership map of the coast range while on patrol near Laurel Mountin west of Falls City on Dec. 13.

Knowing that he could find himself in a tense situation -- which easily could have been the case in the road assistance incident -- far away from other deputies makes Shepherd grateful for the relationship he has with the loggers and others working in the woods.

"They will know exactly where I'm at if I give them a location," he said. "They are a bunch of good guys and they would be quicker to respond than my backup."

Thankfully, the majority of Shepherd's cases require more patience than backup. He spends a lot of time piecing together evidence or waiting for suspects to make a reappearance.

"Over 90 percent of my job is follow-up stuff," Shepherd said. "It's not actually happening right now. I next to never get to close a case the same day."

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Shepherd also has other sets of "eyes" in the woods to help him gather evidence. He has hundreds of photos on his patrol truck's computer taken by wildlife cameras he set up in problem locations.

"This is how much people pay attention to signs," he said scrolling through photo after photo of people crossing a locked gate.

With winter approaching and hunting season over, Shepherd is in what he calls his slow time. December snow storms will bring people out to play in the mountains, with the requisite stranded vehicles.

He will also be on the watch for illegal mushroom hunters, who steal expensive truffles off private forest land.

"They sell to buyers in Portland and they are illegal buyers," he said. "We caught six last year, so far this year we are just starting out."

Very rarely does he catch people red-handed, whether it be stealing truffles or damaging logging equipment, but using his knowledge of the forest and the evidence people leave behind, chances are Shepherd will find the culprit.

"I'm out there actively trying to at least show a presence," he said.

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