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Options Limited For Kentuckians Who Fall Victim To Timber Theft

Wikimedia Commons

A retired Navy civil servant, Nina Cornett and her husband summer in Alaska and spend the winter in rural eastern Kentucky.

Twelve years ago, they returned to Kentucky and found that loggers had pilfered trees from their unattended acreage. Thieves stole more than 100 trees off her land and 450 trees off her relatives’ adjoining property in Letcher County, Cornett said.

“Loggers leave a terrible mess, and you often can’t find the stumps — they’re under huge piles of tops and limbs,” Cornett said. “That was not an accident; you don’t take 500 trees by accident.”

Forestry experts say Cornett's ordeal is common. Timber theft — stealing trees off another person’s property — is a problem in remote areas of the state, especially eastern Kentucky, where landowners often don’t live on the property or can’t afford to fight thieves in court, experts said.

Meanwhile, victims say local law enforcement are often unwilling to investigate claims, telling residents to seek relief by filing civil suits against illegal loggers.

A legislative committee will tackle the issue of timber theft Thursday in Frankfort. Cornett and others plan to make their case before lawmakers in an interim joint Natural Resources Committee hearing.

Cornett's story illustrates the difficulty of squelching tree theft. She and her husband asked local officials to investigate. She said they were urged to file a lawsuit against the suspected thieves, which they did. So began a legal fight that endures 12 years later.

In order to support their claim, the couple surveyed their damaged property,  which Cornett said cost $5 per surveyed foot.

“You can see why a lot of people that own timber in eastern Kentucky don’t have it surveyed. You just can’t afford to do that,” she said.

In the meantime, evidence — such as bulldozer tracks — disappear and make legal claims that are much more difficult to prove.

“It takes you a couple of months to get it surveyed and you know rain’s going to make those disappear. And the stumps age and the timber," she said. "More important is, by that time taken to the sawmill, it’s cut up, it’s sold and you’ll never trace it."

Cornett wants the state to establish a timber theft investigative team in its forestry division.

Bob Bauer, executive director of the Kentucky Forest Industries Association, said a dedicated team of state timber thief investigators would be nice, but it is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

"The concern is that that costs money — where is that going to come from to do that?” Bauer said.

Rep. Leslie Combs, a Democrat from Pikeville, has filed timber theft bills during the last nine legislative sessions. She said she'll likely file a bill next year that would establish a task force to come up with legislative solutions for timber theft. Earlier attempts to strengthen the state's timber theft laws didn't gain traction in the legislature.

"There truly is some accidental timbering, and it's hard to prove that someone was actually in violation of cutting timber they shouldn't have," Combs said. "Committees were reluctant to approve anything because they felt like it was legislation where people would be blamed unnecessarily."

Combs' timber theft task force bill has passed the state House several times in recent years, but it has failed in the Senate. She said the Senate "isn't crazy" about task forces.

Data on exactly how many trees are stolen in Kentucky isn't available.

In the big picture of the Kentucky timber industry, stolen trees are likely a minuscule percentage, said Jeff Stringer, forestry professor at the University of Kentucky.

“While it’s not a big problem from an overall volume standpoint, it is still very important financially to the people that have this occur to them,” Stringer said.

Individual trees can be sold for thousands of dollars to sawmills, but no documentation is required to be kept for where trees come from, and it’s difficult to trace back to the location where they were harvested.

“Logs don’t have VIN numbers, they don’t have bar codes. Once that timber is gone into a mill and sawed up into lumber, we’re done — there is no evidence trail,” Stringer said.

Because of that, Stringer said local law enforcement can’t collect enough evidence to lead to a successful prosecution in timber theft cases.

Kentucky Division of Forestry Director Leah MacSwords said local law enforcement and prosecutors' plates are already full.

"Timber theft just doesn't rise to the top when you're dealing with other crimes," MacSwords said.

Logging is a $12.8 billion industry, according to the forestry division. MacSwords said timber theft harms the economic chain between landowners, the industry and the economy as a whole.

"We've got to get people talking about what we can do about it," MacSwords said.

This year, the legislature approved a law strengthening penalties for loggers who have received "bad actor" designations for not adequately restoring harvested land. After three penalties, bad actors are required to stop logging until land has been remediated and fines paid.

(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives. Email Ryland at rbarton@lpm.org.

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