Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Photo of forester inspecting trees © DNR Division of Forestry

Foresters give advice on managing timber stands.
© DNR Division of Forestry

December 2009

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.

Lori Compas

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.

Finding professional help

To find a forester:

Every county has a professional DNR forester available to:

  • Give free advice about managing, protecting and harvesting your woodlot
  • Explain how you can sustainably manage your forest and save money by enrolling in a forest tax program (Managed Forest Law)
  • Refer you to a list of cooperating foresters if you need services that are not provided by the state

As state government employees, DNR foresters cannot:

  • Rate or offer opinions about loggers or cooperating foresters
  • Act as your agent or administer sales contracts
  • Valuate timber for you regarding civil matters (though they can valuate timber at the request of the district attorney)
  • Survey private property or settle fence line issues

On the other hand, cooperating foresters are private, professional foresters who meet educational and professional development requirements set forth by the Department of Natural Resources but they are not employed by the state. They are hired by landowners and forest product companies.

Cooperating foresters offer many of the same services offered by DNR foresters. In addition, they can:

  • Conduct timber sales (mark trees for cutting, negotiate the sale, prepare a contract and oversee the sale)
  • Valuate your timber
  • Arrange to have your land surveyed to establish property boundaries

To find a DNR forester or a cooperating forester, go to Division of Forestry. The Association of Consulting Foresters of America can also refer you to a forester in your area.

To find a logger:

  • Refer to the members list of the Master Loggers certified by the Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association at www.wimlc.com. For more information on the Wisconsin Master Logger program, see timberpa.com
  • Contact your county forest administrator for a list of loggers who have conducted timber sales on county forests in your area. Find the administrator for your county at wisconsincountyforests.com/wcfa adm.htm
  • If you're unsure of a logging company's reputation, investigate it through the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access Program (wcca.wicourts.gov). The website allows you to access the public records of court cases filed throughout the state, so you can see if an individual or company has been cited for timber theft or other forestry violations, or if they have been involved in a Wisconsin lawsuit.
  • The Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) maintains a database of consumer complaints about businesses in Wisconsin. If you want to investigate a particular individual or company, contact DATCP Consumer Protection at 1-800-422-7128.
Protect yourself

If a neighbor is planning a timber harvest – ask them to keep you informed about when and where the harvest will occur. Be sure your property boundaries are clearly marked.

If you're planning a timber harvest

  • Talk with a forester to determine if your timber is ready to be harvested. If it isn't ready, he or she can recommend management options to maximize your profits later on.
  • Hire a cooperating forester so he or she can set up and administer the sale for you.
  • If you'll be conducting the sale yourself, find a reputable logger, clearly mark your property boundaries and mark the trees to be cut. Estimate how much timber you have and its worth. It could also be helpful to photograph your property before, during and after the sale.

During the sale

  • Be visible, but stay out of harm's way.
  • Record every load that leaves your property. Photograph every load, if possible.
  • Ask questions: Where is the timber being taken? Who is hauling the logs? Save your contract and copies of mill receipts for later reference.
How theft happens
Type of Theft Characteristics
Harvesting across the property line Timber is cut from a neighbor's property.
Skimming off the top A fraction of the cut logs are unloaded at a different location and the remaining logs are taken to the mill. The landowner is paid only for the logs that reach the mill.
Under-reporting timber volume For example, a load of red pine is hauled to a mill. The mill weighs the load and pays by weight. The logger converts the weight to cords, but instead of using the industry standard conversion rate, which is approximately 4,500 pounds per cord, he uses something like 5,500 pounds per cord. The landowner is paid by the cord and the logger keeps the difference.
False reporting of a species The logger reports that a less valuable species, like oak, was delivered to the mill – even though the timber was actually a higher value species, like walnut.
Failure to accurately report volume Logger only pays for a portion of loads that leave the property, for example 15 out of 20.
Failure to report all deliveries Logger hauls to two mills, but only reports to the landowner what was hauled to one mill.
Falsifying mill slips Logger creates his own mill slips reporting less volume than the true mill slips state.
Cutting unmarked timber Even though the landowner or a forester has marked trees to be cut, the logger also cuts trees that were unmarked.
Stealing from log decks A pile of timber awaiting transport along the road is taken by an unauthorized individual.

Chart from DNR Private Lands Forestry Law Enforcement Specialist Gary Bibow

Educate yourself

Learn more about forest management issues and interact with other woodland owners at:

Wisconsin Woodland Owners Association offers education and networking opportunities to woodland owners. The site links to a variety of resources, including information about tax assistance, wildlife, and government agencies and programs.

Wisconsin Woodland Assistance from the University of Wisconsin-Extension offers a great deal of information about managing woodlands, including a sample timber sale contract and in-depth information about how to conduct a timber sale. The site also provides links to conferences and workshops for woodland owners.

The Woodland Advocate Program of Wisconsin Family Forests is an alliance of local forest landowners who share their experiences and pool their needs for professional assistance and educational information.