Timber Theft Can Leave Landowner Stumped

By Allison Floyd

Friday, March 7th, 2014

Landowners in rural communities across the country are at risk of timber theft and a growing number state legislatures are doing something about it.

In Georgia, House Bill 790 would increase the penalty for stealing timber, making restitution painful enough that rogue timber cutters would think twice before taking wood they should leave standing.

“I have been a forester for 35 years and during that time, I have seen this over and over again and it is a really big problem,” said Morgan Mellette, a forester in North Georgia’s Hall County. “I couldn’t give you numbers about how much timber is stolen every year. I don’t think anyone even knows.”

Stealing timber is a crime, like stealing any other asset, but the nature of tree-growing and cutting makes it difficult to find the culprit.

And a criminal cutter has little to lose financially from cutting trees outside his contract. Either he gets away with it, or if he is caught, must repay the cost of the timber.

“It’s an insidious and relatively easy crime, particularly if the landowner doesn’t live there,” Mellette said. “He may not visit his property but two or three times a year.”

Theft is most common when a cutter takes more timber than he is allowed under an agreement with the landowner or purposely strays onto a neighboring property.

But some thefts happen in the open, when a property owner returned to find his investment looted.

Some multi-million-dollar cases have sent timber thieves to prison, but it’s the smaller cases that bother honest timber buyers and foresters. Some states have taken strong stands against timber theft. South Carolina and Arkansas often are cited for their stern laws.

In the case of the proposed Georgia law, criminals who illegally cut timber could be forced to pay three times the value of the timber. The higher restitution is particularly important in times like these, when the housing slump has forced down timber prices.

“You may still come out on the bad end (if a thief is caught and pays restitution),” Mellette said. “Five years down the road, when we come out of this recession, you may be expecting a higher price.

“The thing about timber and trees is, you can’t put them back.”

The Georgia Forestry Association, the professional group that lobbied for a state law, provides forest landowners a list of Best Practices to protect themselves from theft:

1. (Know) the value of working with a reputable professional forester to assist with the sale of your timber and to monitor the harvest cannot be overstated. If you are a victim of timber theft or timber trespass, these professionals also can assist in determining the value of stolen timber and damages to your property.

2. Walk your property on a fairly regular basis.

3. If you become aware that trees are being cut on your own or your neighbor’s property without permission, contact law enforcement immediately and indicate that a crime is being committed. Once stolen trees leave the property and reach a mill, it is impossible for law enforcement agencies to track the timber.

4. Be aware of your property boundaries and have them clearly marked so that they can be seen from adjoining properties.

5. Provide adjacent landowners with boundary information, preferably, a survey that can be compared to their own information.

6. Be sure that your timber contract clearly states the boundaries and be sure everyone involved in the harvest is aware of the boundaries.

7. Advise adjoining property owners that you do not want your timber harvested and ask that they contact you if they notice suspicious logging activity.

8. Likewise, advise adjacent landowners when a timber harvest is scheduled on your property, especially if the harvest will take place along or near a property line.

9. Recognize the potential for your timber to be cut if a harvest is being conducted on an adjacent property.

10. Remember that absentee landowners are more at risk for timber theft and should have someone keep close watch over their land and timber.