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Timber theft is a growing 'business'

December 31, 2007|From Associated Press

WHITESBURG, KY. — The crime scene -- a once-wooded landscape marked by tire tracks and tree stumps -- makes the victim, Verna Potter, feel physically violated.

"It's just like someone cut your heart out," says the 77-year-old Potter, who lost an estimated $50,000 worth of generations-old oak trees. They were taken from her property and sold without permission while she was away.

Rogue loggers have long preyed on private properties from coast to coast, taking advantage of the elderly and the absent. And they traditionally had little to fear from law enforcement officials hesitant to pursue criminal charges, instead chalking up most complaints to property disputes. But as timber values have risen, so have the stakes for landowners -- and the attitude of law enforcement is adjusting.

"The authorities who have dealt with it as a property matter are starting to look at it as more of a criminal matter," said Joseph Phaneuf, executive director of the Northeastern Loggers' Assn.

In recent years, there has been a steady movement to curb illegal logging. Some states, such as Mississippi and Virginia, have established timber-theft laws, making illegal logging on private property a felony punishable by prison time.

In Kentucky, the problem has resulted in the formation of the Appalachian Roundtable, a nonprofit that joins forestry experts, attorneys, law enforcement and victims to alert landowners to logging scams and pursue criminal charges against thieves. The group is drafting legislation to be introduced in the 2008 Kentucky General Assembly aimed at making timber theft a felony punishable by prison.

"Historically, it's been viewed by local police and the judiciary as a civil complaint," said Keith Cain, president of the Kentucky Sheriffs Assn. "But the theft of timber is a criminal issue and should be prosecuted as such."

With overseas demand for North American hardwoods growing, theft has become costlier for private landowners, whose woodlands make up 55% of U.S. timber production, forestry officials say.

Cain said the same local prosecutors who vigilantly try other felonies are reluctant to get involved in timber cases.

That's because they anticipate questions about property boundaries, and few people have the money or the resources to hire a lawyer, pay thousands of dollars for a survey or hire an expert to place a value on the timber lost.

Timber thieves manipulate these obstacles, experts say. They usually operate along adjoining property lines and claim to have either owner's permission to log.

A couple of years ago, Potter decided to move in with her grown children in Ohio with her husband, who is diabetic and blind. She visits her 25-acre property only a few times a year.

If it hadn't been for nephew Mark Combs, who lives on adjacent property, she might not have known for months that her oaks had been taken down.

Combs confronted a local logger one November day after hearing the sound of a chain saw on his aunt's property. The case is to go before a grand jury next month, though that brings Potter little satisfaction.

"Thirty-two oak trees that have been there for years," said Potter. "It was my turn to give them to my son and daughter -- but you can't replace those."

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