Foresters give advice on managing timber stands.
When you can't see missing trees from the forest
Foresters, peers, DNR investigators and reputable loggers can help vigilant woodland owners avoid becoming victims of timber theft.
About ten years ago, a stranger knocked on our elderly neighbor's front door and offered to pay him $1,000 for a tree. It was a tall, straight black walnut that stood in the creek valley just off an old gravel road. Our neighbor, Milton, was tempted by the offer but he turned it down; he had liked the tree ever since he was a boy and he didn't want to sell it. Besides, he knew he might need the money to cover health expenses later on. That tree was precious to him, both as a reminder of his past and an investment in his future.
Milton grew older and walked his land less and less, but he never sold the tree. Then one day my mother, on a hike near the creek, noticed that it was gone: it had been cut off at ground level and the stump had been covered with leaves. She didn't have the heart to tell Milton. House-bound and ill, he never knew the tree was taken; the crime wasn't reported and the thief was never caught.
Milton, like a growing number of landowners across the country, was a victim of timber theft. The crime takes many forms, from dark-of-night operations on public and private lands to failure to pay in full for harvested timber.
"It's really unfortunate, but the elderly are common victims of timber theft," said Gary Bibow, the DNR's Private Lands Forestry Law Enforcement Specialist. "Other common victims include absentee landowners and landowners who simply have no idea how much timber they have or what it's worth."
Exact numbers of timber theft cases across the state are difficult to determine. Some complaints are registered through local law enforcement agencies, while others go directly to the Department of Natural Resources. Many times timber theft complaints aren't reported because the landowner isn't immediately aware of the theft, doesn't understand the law, or is embarrassed by the situation. Bibow is currently working on a system to track timber theft complaints throughout the state, and he is certain that not a single Wisconsin county is immune to it. "I've been involved in timber theft investigations from Rock County to Ashland County," he said.
Bibow stressed that reputable loggers play a vitally important role in sustainable forest management, since they harvest trees so the forest can regenerate. "There are a lot of good loggers out there, and they're doing good work," Bibow said. "But it's like a three-legged stool. You need three things to have a successful timber harvest: the landowner, the forester and the logger."
One of the most common timber theft-related issues isn't really theft at all. It happens when landowners are pressured into signing a contract that's written by and for the logger. "Many times we see problems when a timber buyer approaches the landowners on the doorstep and convinces them to sign a contract," Bibow said. "The landowners are told if they don't sell now, while the logging equipment is there, they won't have another opportunity and the timber will lose value."
Landowners can help protect themselves – and their woodlands – from the consequences of a hasty sale or outright theft by consulting with a forester ahead of time. Professional foresters can provide essential guidance to landowners about managing and harvesting their timber.
Professional cooperating foresters can help woodland owners estimate timber volume, value and whether that timber is ready for harvest. "You wouldn't sell your car or your house without finding out what it's worth," Bibow said. "Your timber is no different – except it might be worth more than your car, or even more than your house."
A cooperating forester can also help landowners read and understand a contract to make sure the terms are fair. "Without realizing it you can have a contract that says the logger has the right to cut down all merchantable timber on the property," Bibow said. "That means every tree. People just sign these contracts without understanding what they mean, and by the time they realize what's going on, it's too late."
Professional foresters can also help set up and administer the timber sale. That means they can advise landowners when a timber sale would be most beneficial for regenerating the forest, can mark trees for cutting, can negotiate a contract, and could monitor the logging operation.
But sometimes landowners are victims of timber theft even when they aren't participating in a sale at all. This can happen when a logger cuts timber from neighboring land.
"Many of the complaints we get involve adjacent landowners," Bibow said. "One of the landowners conducts a timber sale and the logger – unintentionally or intentionally – cuts across a property line."
The risks of this type of theft can be decreased by ensuring that property boundaries are clearly marked and agreed upon by all adjacent landowners. Since most foresters are not surveyors, neighbors usually need to split the cost of a survey, fencing or other boundary-line markings.
When a case of timber theft is reported – to the county sheriff's office, directly to a DNR office, or to the DNR violation hotline at 1-800-TIP-WDNR – DNR staff work with other state, local, and sometimes federal law enforcement authorities to determine if, and how, timber theft is occurring. While there are many types of timber theft, DNR foresters and forester-rangers have a variety of investigative tools at their disposal. "We've used cameras, night vision and officers in the air and on the ground," Bibow said, adding that investigators also have the ability to track harvested timber itself.
If a landowner suspects that timber theft has occurred, he or she should report it immediately. "The sooner that suspicion is reported," Bibow said, "the sooner someone will be able to react to it, and the easier the case will be to investigate."
Loggers do exceptional work in Wisconsin, and they are critical to managing our forests sustainably. It's important, though, for landowners to do their homework before signing a timber sale contract.
"Don't feel pressured into signing a contract with the first logger who knocks on your door," Bibow said. "Ask a forester to help you determine whether your timber is ready for harvest and what type of harvest is required. If you think you're a victim of timber theft, report it right away so we can help you out."
Writer and photographer Lori Compas is also a website designer and editor for DNR's Division of Forestry.
Chart from DNR Private Lands Forestry Law Enforcement Specialist Gary Bibow