Hide Your Trees Timber Theft Is Increasing Across the Country

tree thief, Credit: Getty Images' width=With falling incomes in the timber industry and declining budgets for law enforcement, incidences of timber theft are on the rise across the country. Timber theft can range from a landowner cutting down a neighbor’s tree to loggers stealing hundreds or thousands of trees from private or public lands. Investigators say it’s difficult to calculate the exact number of trees lost to theft, but losses are estimated at $3 million over the last five years in Mississippi alone.

The remoteness of most forested areas and the complex and largely undocumented nature of the timber industry allows unscrupulous loggers to victimize landowners, taxpayers and the environment. Even schoolchildren are not immune. Logger Harold Edwin Simmons of Saucier, Mississippi, was arrested on three counts of timber theft this past April, accused of stealing some $375,000 worth of timber from land set aside to benefit school districts.

Sometimes it’s a simple case of a logger crossing a property line and taking trees that aren’t meant to be cut. “It can be accidental,” says Robert Jordan, director of Mississippi’s Agriculture and Livestock Theft Bureau. “And it can be accidental on purpose. They see some great stuff right over there and they just can’t stand it.”

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Other cases involve absentee or elderly landowners who are not able to routinely patrol their land. “Once we got a call from a landowner who came out to his rural property to hunt,” says James Boylan, a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation investigator and former forester. “Not only was his tree stand gone; the whole tree was gone. Who knows when it happened? It was a cold case right from the start.”

Some thieves target rare or expensive wood, like the distinctively patterned birdseye maple used to make violins and guitars. There’s no way to tell from a standing maple tree whether the wood inside will display the birdseye pattern, so thieves have devised a way to check. “We can see where they’ve notched trees [on state-owned forest land] to see if they have that desirable pattern,” says Larry Raedel, chief law enforcement officer for the Washington Department of Natural Resources. “When they find one that does, they cut down the entire tree and pack out a five- or six-foot section. They might make $300-$400 for a slab of birdseye.”

These are the simple scenarios. At the other end of the spectrum are more complex schemes involving unreported or falsified mill receipts. For instance, a logger might have a legitimate contract to cut timber on a parcel of land, with the understanding that he will cut certain trees, take them to a sawmill, receive payment and pay the landowner a portion of the receipts. The trick is that he might take the logs to several different mills and only report the sales from one mill, pocketing the proceeds from the others.

As timber thieves’ methods become more sophisticated, so do law enforcement agencies’ efforts to catch them. Investigators use tracking paint, surveillance and hidden cameras to catch thieves in the act. One of their best methods is simply talking with other loggers. “Some of our biggest cases have been the result of ethical loggers tipping us off,” says Gary Bibow, a law enforcement specialist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Even with firm evidence, timber theft cases can be difficult to prosecute. “Prosecutor’s offices’ budgets are shrinking, so they have to prioritize their caseloads,” Raedel says. “Timber theft is seen as a property crime rather than a victim crime, so we constantly need to educate people about how valuable that resource is.”

timber theft
Birdseye maple is prized for making guitars. © Veder Mountain Hardwoods

Boylan agrees. “They say “Oh, it’s just trees,”” he says. “But then we show them the receipts. We recently had a case where an elderly woman lost $25,000 worth of trees in one week. How could you consider not prosecuting that?”

State laws vary widely, with convicted timber thieves facing penalties ranging from relatively small fines to jail time and full restitution. Many states are enacting tougher laws in response to the increasing numbers of cases, and a provision in the 2008 Farm Bill makes it a federal crime for anyone to transport illegally harvested timber across state or international boundaries. Despite their best efforts, though, law enforcement officials have trouble imagining a theft-free future.

“As long as there are trees, there will be people who want to cut them down,” Bibow says. “No matter what the markets are like, if there’s a landowner who doesn’t know the value of their timber, there’s going to be someone willing to take advantage of them.”