LUFKIN, Texas — Skulking into the piney forest in the dead of night, they pick off their prey and cart it to market. These are thieves, reminiscent of the cattle rustlers once well known in Texas.
But now the prey are trees.
Timber has become a valuable commodity in Southern states, including Texas. Where once only cotton was king, 58% of all the timber produced each year in the United States now comes from the South, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Southerners who own lands graced by forests are facing losses of $75 million each year from stolen hardwoods and Tall Southern Yellow pine, said Bruce Miles, director of the Texas Forest Service.
Rip-off artists trespass or ignore neighboring property lines to cut down trees because the price of logs has about doubled in the last two years and the number of absentee landowners has increased, said Alan Matecko, spokesman for the National Forests and Grasslands in Texas.
"Where saw logs were bringing $30 a ton, they're now bringing $60 a ton," said state Rep. Billy Clemons, who lost about $5,000 when unscrupulous loggers harvested more than 50 pines, some hardwoods and a few small pulp wood trees from his land.
"I am a victim," he said, adding that natural disasters have added to the number of thefts. "The price of raw material has increased greatly. It's worth their effort to sneak on to somebody's property and steal some logs."
Many landowners are easy targets for the crooks because, unlike livestock, trees are not easily identifiable.
Unethical loggers have been known to clear cut without permission, and falsify sales bills and scale readings. And just invade someone else's land.
"It's easier to get forgiveness than it is to get permission," Miles said of loggers who trespass for trees.
Shelby County timber farmer W.I. Davis, who has been in the timber business for 50 years, says he lost about $3,000 worth of his best trees last year when a logger claimed he did not know the boundary.
"There's honest mistakes," Davis said. "And then there's mistakes on purpose."
Miles tells a story of a case in Cass County, where a thief stole the trees from a 160-acre tract but left a stand of pines along the perimeter. That way the owner would not know when she drove past her land.
No one is safe. In November, a Louisiana timber buyer confessed to stealing timber from the Sisters of Providence in Indiana. The nuns lost about $100,000 when about 75% of their 104 acres was cut and sold, according to Harrison County Sheriff's Deputy Mike Alexander.
A hanging used to be the justice served up for rustlers in Texas. Today, landowners have trouble even getting a conviction for tree thievery.
"If you have good documentation of what happened it's not hard, but a lot of times people just go in in the dead of night and cut down timber without a trace," said Assistant Dist. Atty. Art Bauereiss, who successfully prosecuted Clemons' case.
So, posses have been forming. Law enforcement, landowners and forestry officials have combined efforts to go after the tree rustlers. That has resulted in numerous lawsuits and convictions nationwide.
Even the federal government has been hit: Three U.S. Forest Service workers were found guilty of stealing timber from the Sabine National Forest.
Some milling companies, such as Purchase, N.Y.-based International Paper Co., have set up their own inspectors to check on boundary lines and logging sites. They also use surveillance.
"The loggers never know if or when we're doing surveillance, but the possibility that we might be and the paper trail we can follow does deter theft," said Randy Cofield, who handles timber security for International Paper. "People are usually caught when they get greedy."
Arkansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana have passed laws that make a convicted thief pay the victim three to 10 times the value of the stolen timber. Texas has set up a public education program and Clemons says he will introduce legislation next session.
Still, the laws will not protect people who do not know the scams.
"If you're ignorant about timber or brain surgery, you ought to have somebody who knows something about it help you," Miles said.