Farming Magazine - June, 2010

WOODLOTS

Timber Theft in Tough Times

A growing concern for landowners and farmers
By Richard Triumpho
This old barbed wire property line has been identified with a blue flag, but re-marking nearby trees with blaze marks still needs to be done.
Photos by Richard Triumpho

Why would a farmer, or any other landowner here in the Northeast, worry about timber theft? In today’s bad economy, when even a load of wood chips is worth up to $600, rural crimes of all kinds tend to increase, from stolen livestock and machinery, even copper lightning rod cable being torn off barn roofs, all the way to timber theft. So farmers, and all landowners, should be concerned, especially since a substantial number of farms have considerable amounts of woodlot acreage.

A 2008 forum sponsored by the New York State Legislative Commission on Rural Affairs cited a survey of landowners showing timber theft is a serious problem, with victims rarely able to recover their losses. Pennsylvania has strict penalties against timber theft: three times the market value of the trees if the trespass is found to be deliberate, two times if it’s found to be negligent. If, because of uncertain boundary lines the logger believes he was not trespassing, he must still pay full market value for timber taken. However, according to John Becker, professor of agricultural economics and law at Penn State, “Landowners who have lost trees to timber theft may have trouble enforcing an obligation against the suspected party.” The affected landowner can lose thousands of dollars worth of timber and still face uphill legal battles.

Paul Harwood is a professional forester in Tunbridge, Vt., and owns a forest management consulting service. Recently, he was called upon to resolve a timber theft case in which an elderly couple that owns a 300-acre dairy farm suffered a theft of 50 mature sugar maple trees from their old sugar bush. In this case, the theft was unintentional, because the logger had used a tax map with an incorrect property line. Still, the farmer had to hire a consulting forester to measure the stumps in order to determine the value of the trees taken, and then hire an attorney to seek collection through the court system.

Even when there is a written contract for a timber harvest, the landowner should make sure that every log is measured and documented on a tally sheet.

In Maine, forest service rangers investigate over 1,000 complaints annually involving timber trespass or deliberate theft of timber. Oftentimes, such as in the Vermont case, property lines are not well-defined, resulting in timber being cut without the owner’s permission.

In 2003, the New York State legislature established timber theft as a class A misdemeanor. However, the 2008 New York forum found that, “In many instances, law enforcement has failed to rigorously follow up and prosecute timber theft. In others, landowners don’t have well-marked boundaries or solid contracts for sale of timber. Loggers are not always bonded; mills and timber buyers do not always verify the legality of their gate work.”

Timber theft laws vary considerably among the states. A logging license is required to practice forestry in Massachusetts and West Virginia. Connecticut has a forester/harvester certification process. New Hampshire requires a cutting plan be filed before timber is harvested, and also that anyone practicing forestry for compensation must be licensed by the state. The Maine statutes specify that the landowner shall clearly mark property lines within 200 feet of the area to be harvested.

The New York forum found that theft occurs mainly on privately owned forestland, and that individuals and families account for 85 percent of the forestland in the state. In almost two-thirds of the cases, property boundaries were clearly marked, but the boundary line was either ignored or not self-evident to the logger. This problem arises when the property line is an old, rusted and broken barbed wire embedded in trees in a large woodlot with adjacent owners. In this type of situation a neighbor hires a logger to cut timber on his side of the line and the logger trespasses, either deliberately, because some valuable trees were tempting, or unintentionally, because the boundary line was ambiguous. This underscores the need for an accurate survey.

Old barbed wire embedded in mature trees is legal evidence of the original property boundary line.

Neighbors can’t always agree on where their property lines are located. The forester who flags the property line may have used a tax map as a guide, but tax maps are notoriously inaccurate. Even attempting to determine property lines by reading the description in the deed can be far from helpful, especially when that description might be totally “bounding owners” description. For example: bounded north by lands of these two people, bounded east by these two people, bounded south, and so on. You have no idea where the boundaries are. Charles Colony, a state director with the Pennsylvania Society for Land Surveyors, says, “If you take those original records and attempt to draw them together, it’s often like a jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t fit.”

That’s why the hiring of a licensed land surveyor is invaluable. Centre County surveyor Ed Heary advises, “The more accurate the survey, the more expensive it’s likely to be.” Half the work of a good survey will be research. Before they even go out in the field, many surveyors will spend days in the county courthouse on boundary lines and retracement.

“There’s a world of difference between a ‘bounding owners’ description, an abstract and actual retracement,” says Duane Sprague, a surveyor in central New York. “All an abstract does is tell you the chain of title and whether the title is clear—whether there are any liens, mortgages or judgments against it. That’s a tool for us, and sometimes it will give us enough background so we can find the piece of the puzzle that’s missing, that’s been lost through a will, a sheriff’s sale, mortgage foreclosure, whatever the case may be. But somewhere the abstract lawyers get lazy; they drop the ‘metes and bounds’ description and start doing this ‘bounding owners’ description.

“Or, you could have a man who bought seven farms and ends up selling most of the land differently, and then the land he doesn’t sell goes through his will; it can be a mess. And, this is what the ‘boundary lines and tracement’ that surveyors do is all about.”

You can see that determining true property lines involves complicated, frustrating work. In any boundary dispute, the best evidence, by law, is the original monument, if it can be found. Sometimes it’s an old tree, a rock wall or strands of rusted barbed wire embedded in trees 100 years old. Elizabeth Webster, with the Penn State Forest Resources Extension, says, “The surveyor’s job then is not necessarily to find the most technically accurate boundaries, but to find the same boundaries that the original surveyor marked.”

The importance of a good survey and accurately marked boundary lines cannot be emphasized enough. When your surveyor finishes, he will mark the corners with an iron pipe, a concrete post or a series of triangulated “witness trees.” Within the woodlot, it is the landowner’s responsibility to mark the boundary lines with “blazes” on trees. A blaze is made by removing a square of bark from any healthy tree within 5 feet of the boundary line, making the cut chest high, and so that it faces the line. Any tree growing directly on the line should be blazed on the front and back. Paint the blaze with a bright, oil-based paint. The next tree blazed should be within sighting distance of the last.

In summary, the best protection against timber theft is for a landowner to keep his boundary lines well-marked and keep an eye on any suspicious activity in his woodlot. If woods adjoining yours are being harvested, make frequent inspections to ensure that trespass does not occur.

The author is a freelance contributor based in St. Johnsville, N.Y. Comment or question? Visit www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.