Timber Theft Is Topic Of Interim Committee Meeting Posted: October 5, 2015
TESTIMONY BEFORE THE INTERIM JOINT COMMITTEE ON NATURAL RESOURCES AND THE ENVIRONMENT
October 1, 2015
Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, I appreciate this opportunity to discuss the issue of timber theft and recommendations to combat timber theft. Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge the leadership that Representative Combs has shown on this issue, and the untiring work of Nina Cornett of Letcher County, who after her retirement as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy, has worked relentlessly to educate us all regarding timber theft. Her website, www.timbertheft.org, is a good resource on the scope and nature of the problem in Kentucky.
By the numbers, Kentucky has about 25.8 million acres of which about 47%, or a little more than 12 million acres, are covered in woodlands. While eastern Kentucky has the greatest concentration of these woodlands, with 75% of the region forested, woodlands are found in all counties. Kentucky woodlands are held by 467,000 woodland owners, most of whom are private landowners, and many of whom do not live on the woodlands but instead live in urban areas of Kentucky or out of state.
Timber theft is not an insignificant crime, and has been estimated to be a $1 billion/year business nationally. It results in financial loss and property damage to landowners, and also adversely affects the livelihood of legitimate logging companies.
Yet despite this, timber theft is often viewed as a victimless crime and is one in which the victim rarely sees justice. It is difficult to engage law-enforcement in the investigation of timber theft, and more difficult still to engage the prosecutorial resources of local government.
There are a number of reasons that have been noted:
- The lack of resources and training for law enforcement in investigating timber theft;
- Workloads for local prosecutors;
- Weaknesses in the criminal statutes;
- Indefinite, unmarked, and disputed property boundaries
The typical landowner faces almost insurmountable obstacles in seeking justice, since in order to prove a case, the landowner must pay for a survey, a consultant to estimate the loss, and counsel.
Finding justice is also difficult because the law provides that the victim’s compensation is based on stumpage value of the timber, rather than what the thief gained from the theft. Since stump value is generally set at a mere fraction of the sawmill price, thieves are willing to take a chance that they can steal and not be caught because getting away with even a few jobs is extremely lucrative. Even if caught, a thief who has to pay only stumpage value or a multiplier of stumpage value may still make a profit.
Additionally, the full cost of restoration of damaged land is often not included in the measure of damages. Such costs can include unwanted skid trails and roads, destruction or wear and tear to existing woods roads and trails, reduction of property values due to damage to woodlands, destruction of fences, gates, and other property, water quality problems associated with improper stream crossings and improper road and skid trails, destruction or unwanted changes in wildlife habitats, damage to special places such as historic or prehistoric sites, and piles of debris that create a fire danger, among others.
The Environmental Quality Commission held a meeting recently, and has produced several recommendations, including
1. Granting statutory authority to the Kentucky Division of Forestry to investigate timber theft and enforce timber theft laws, provide funding and personnel for these new responsibilities
2. Increasing the civil and criminal penalties for timber theft
3. Establishing a legal method by which landowners do not bear the burden of proving the value of stolen timber
4. Establishing a rewards program as an incentive for reporting theft that leads to arrest and conviction of guilty parties, using funds from penalties and fines.
5. Improve the coordination among all agencies in their oversight of timber harvesting, resulting in the reduction of timber theft and timber trespass.
6. Develop a statewide system for timber theft data collection and maintenance.
As you know, Representative Combs has for a number of years filed a Concurrent Resolution seeking to establish a Timber Theft and Trespass Reduction Task Force in order to bring a broad group of stakeholders to the table to explore ways to better combat timber theft.
Having worked during the last year with the oil and gas industry, farm bureau, and the Cabinet on reforming and modernizing our oil and gas laws, there is much to be said for collaborative efforts to achieve a goal that is common to woodland owners, the forest products industry, and local and state government of reducing timber trespass and timber theft.
Since that resolution has not been passed, I would encourage this Committee to empanel a broad-based work group to identify the problems and develop consensus on measures to reduce timber theft and timber trespass, including evaluation and possible strengthening of criminal and civil laws, improved coordination among other agencies having oversight over timber harvesting. The resolution identified a number of stakeholders, including
• Kentucky Woodland Owners Association
• The Kentucky Forest Industries Association
• Division of Forestry
• Nature Preserves Commission
• State Parks
• Daniel Boone National Forest
• Office of the Attorney General
• College of Agriculture
• Commonwealth Attorney’s Association
• County Attorney’s Association
• Representatives of non-industrial woodland owners who are victims of timber theft or trespass