Timber Theft

Only the crunch of gravel mars the predawn quiet as a truck, headlights off, rolls to a stop. Working quickly, professional bandits round up your unsuspecting timber. As your herd of prized trees is prodded toward the tailgate ramp, their soft mewling is barely audible amidst all the rustling…

While it does at times parallel cattle rustling, with skilled thieves whisking away a few exceptionally valuable trees in an early-morning or weekend raid, timber theft encompasses more than outright banditry. How much more, exactly, is a matter of debate. There are still law enforcement agencies which view a clear-cut (so to speak) timber theft, even one that amounts to tens of thousands of dollars (According to a 2007 SUNY ESF survey, the average value of timber in NYS stolen per event was $10,650.), as a civil matter akin to a boundary dispute. On the other hand, some foresters believe that every timber sale not conducted by an honest forester is theft. All agree, though, that this crime is a theft that keeps on taking, in that it can undo years of good management, and require decades for recovery.

Forest owners need to learn how to protect themselves against the many faces of timber theft. In a strict legal sense, timber theft is the removal of trees without the landowner’s knowledge and consent, á là timber rustling. Breach of contract is also theft, although except in rare cases where the buyer uses an alias or knowingly passes a bad check, it’s a matter for the civil courts (small claims for losses under $3,000, and State Supreme Court for losses greater than that). If a timber buyer pays a fraction of the value to a landowner who doesn’t know any better, it’s only considered theft if the seller is compromised by age, illness or dementia, though again it’s a civil matter. Otherwise, deception is either an ethical and moral offense or good business practice, depending on one’s point of view.

It seems fair to ask how a shoplifter can get nabbed for pocketing a pack of gum but a team of chainsaw-brandishing crooks with heavy equipment can make off with thousands of board feet of timber without attracting attention. Timber theft is easier than most people imagine. The setting is always rural, frequently remote, and the owners are often absentee. High-value hardwoods in the northeast are especially enticing. Black cherry, sugar maple and red oak are among the most sought-after species.

The more valuable the goods are, the more they need watching. Store owners take inventory, but who’s minding shop in our forests? Absentee owners need to be especially vigilant about marking boundaries, blocking access points, visiting often and keeping in contact with owners of adjacent properties. Sometimes thieves “tunnel” in from an adjacent property where they may have a legitimate harvesting job (if a logger who readily steals can be said to have a “legitimate” job). The best protection against this type of “stealth robbery” is to have extremely well-marked boundaries. While it’s hard to say how many trespass thefts are deliberate, the consensus among professionals is that most are not.

When dealing with theft, landowners should refuse payment for stolen timber. This may seem counter-intuitive, but accepting any money shifts the issue from criminal to civil jurisdiction, and may even spoil the chances of a civil settlement as well. New York State now has very stiff penalties for criminal timber theft, but if a logger approaches an absentee landowner with an apology and a check for “accidentally” cutting a few trees on his or her land, that logger can now go back and harvest the rest of that parcel with impunity. Victims of timber theft should immediately contact an Environmental Conservation Officer, State Trooper, or Sheriff.

When it comes to violating contracts, the Sheriff isn’t going to help you resolve disputes about vague language in the contract. Fuzzy wording, removal of unmarked trees, failure to pay in full, and neglecting to put erosion controls in place following the sale are but a few of the ways landowners can be defrauded. It’s best to proceed slowly, get input from professionals, and double-check communications. Have an expert legal eye run through the contract and hire a forester to manage timber sales to help avoid breach of contract.

That isn’t to say that having a forester guarantees the desired outcome. When foresters work on a percentage basis, some will be tempted to forego best management practices in favor of value. Ideally, fees should be based on an acreage or hourly basis instead of a percentage of sales revenue.

Regarding deception, is it theft or good business practice? Almost any professional forester would say it’s theft. Retired DEC forester Charlie Mowatt, an unflagging champion of good forest management, told me that owners and managers need to get back to silviculture and away from “silverculture,” short-term gain at the expense of long-term productivity.

To prevent timber theft, we must challenge our complacency as landowners about our vulnerability, challenge public officials to be more responsive in pursuing theft, and challenge the short-sightedness of “good business practices” that undermine our long-term well being. And we need to get out in our woodlots more often, especially when the leaves are on and we can listen to the gentle rustling.

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