Dear EarthTalk: I heard that timber thefts are increasing across the country. Why would people steal timber and is it a particular kind for a particular use?
— Rosie Ng, Stanwood, WA
People are stealing timber for the same reasons they steal anything: to profit from someone else’s hard work. What makes timber thefts that much harder to stop is the fact that, most of the time, they occur in remote forested areas and loggers typically don’t have to document their sales as meticulously as other kinds of natural resource extraction. With the economy still in the doldrums, it’s not surprising that timber thefts appear to be on the rise, at least based on anecdotal evidence from around 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,” reports Lori Compas in the September/October 2010 issue of E Magazine. “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.” She cites one example there whereby a logger was arrested on three counts of timber theft after clearing some $375,000 worth of trees from land set aside to benefit local schools.
In some cases, thieves are targeting specific types of rare or expensive wood, such as the distinctively patterned birds-eye maple used in some high-end musical instruments. Since there’s no way to tell if the wood inside a maple tree will show the birds-eye pattern without cutting into it, thieves aren’t scared to damage or potentially kill a tree to find out. “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 State 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.”
Of course, on the other end of the spectrum, more complex schemes involve 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,” reports Compas. “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.” In response to these more sophisticated tactics law enforcement is starting to step up efforts to catch timber thieves red-handed by the use of tracking paint, surveillance and hidden cameras. Oftentimes other loggers will even tip off local authorities about a rogue member of their industry perpetrating such crimes.
According to Tree Farmer magazine, legislatures and courts in various states are also starting to assign stiffer penalties for timber thefts. “Not only will actual or compensatory damages be awarded, but also, in the proper situations, swift and severe penalty awards and punitive damages will be handed down by the courts,” Tree Farmer reports. Unlike in the past, timber thieves today often must answer to civil trespassing charges along with larceny of natural resources—and may be expected to pay back not only the value of the stolen timber but also the cost of reforesting the site(s) in question. Timber thieves who haul their take out of state might also face federal charges for transporting stolen timber across state lines.