Timber Theft

Some of the Ways Timber Theft Happens

While the vast majority of loggers are fair and hope to have the landowner as a client again, clearly, some operate very differently. Dishonest loggers are well aware of the fact that many landowners do not know the value of their timber, have no familiarity with hiring an expert to help with a harvest, and do not know standard practices. The vast majority of loggers are honest professionals who take pride in their timber harvests, appreciate long-term stewardship and environmental values.

Some dishonest loggers are very clever. They may trespass, steal, and deceive, taking advantage of the remoteness of the forestalled, and the fact that one can't put a wood lot behind a locked door. Some of the ways in which trespass, timber theft, and deceptive business practices may occur are listed below.

Trespass: Entering another's property without permission; in this case, to steal timber.

  • Very frequently occurs via adjoining property
  • Your neighbor may not be aware that his land is the access and egress route
  • If confronted, the trespasser say he has the owner's permission
  • If caught in the act, the logger may offer money, with profuse apologies for mistakenly crossing the boundary. If the landowner accepts money, the logger may continue to cut, claiming the owner has been paid for the timber.
  • Loggers may simply ignore a marked boundary, or specifically obliterate or destroy line markings, such as taking down or moving posted signs or felling marked trees and removing the section of each tree trunk having the paint or blaze or sign.
  • The logger may hide the evidence by covering stumps with brush or rubble, or may cut and disperse the tree's top cluster of branches, making it difficult to determine the length of the stolen logs.

Deceptive Practices and Theft: Usually this refers to cases in which the logger is authorized to be on the site, either with or without a contract, and engages in dishonest practices or simply violates the spirit of the letter or agreement with the owner. When trees to be sold are not marked in advance, the owner does not have a good idea of their value, the logger's first offer may unreasonably low. Seller, beware! To avoid being cheated, owners must be informed and be willing to negotiate, or seek advice from state or private foresters.

A tree grown for timber typically should increase in quality (grade) and volume (scale) up to the point where it is fully mature. Overcutting involves taking trees before they have reached maximum value. Agreement or contract payment methods based on a percentage of the cut inherently encourage overcutting.

  • Loggers may purposely damage trees not intended for sale, so there is an excuse to cut and remove them.
  • Trees may be cut over a larger area than the owner intended, which is particularly easy if the trees to be harvested are not marked, or the sale area is not well delineated or only marked with easily removed ribbons or signs.
  • Even if trees are marked, unmarked trees will be cut if the risk of detection is low and the logger can convince the owner that the "workers made a mistake".
  • When trees are marked for sale, they are typically painted twice: on the log and on the stump for later verification against overcutting. Some thieves paint extra trees themselves, or damage the stump where it could have been marked.

The dishonest logger may also use one of several underpayment schemes:

  • Timber volume can be expressed in cubic volume measures (e.g. cubic feet in a saw log*** link to Forest Owner Jan./Feb 1998 pg16) or in terms of estimated "board feet" (measure of rectangular boards sawn from an ideal tapered cylindrical log). Conversions from logs to board feet are called scales, three typical scales being: "Doyle", "Scribner" and 'International 1/4".' Depending on log diameter and length, each scale can lead to different board foot volumes. Any contract or agreement ambiguity on the type of volume measure can be used to take advantage of the unwary seller.
  • Some loggers may offer to scale and grade the logs, paying the owner a predetermined amount for each grade, with the implication that there will be a high percentage of high-value logs. In all likelihood, however, the owner will later be told that the timber quality/quantity scaled at the mill was much less than expected.
  • When trees to be sold are not marked in advance and the owner does not have a good idea of the timber's value, the logger's first offer may be unreasonably low. Seller, beware! To avoid being cheated, owners must be informed and be willing to negotiate, or seek advice from a state or private forester.
  • A logger may arrange to pay the owner based on scale slips from the mill, but the owner may not be shown all the scale slips, and can never be sure to which mill the logs are taken.
  • There are too many stories of landowners who were never paid and who went through considerable grief just to remove the logger from their property. The loggers may claim that the cost of installing roads and trails exceeded the value of the timber.

Poor contract provisions may lull an owner into feeling secure, but they only serve to protect a dishonest logger at the owner's expense. Some provisions may seem all right when read when they are actually meaningless, such as a logger agreeing to do "the best he can".

Preventing Timber Theft

Landowners must be responsible for doing all they can to prevent trespass of their lands and to forestall theft and deceptive practices by a logger during a planned harvest. For most landowners, hiring a consulting forester to handle a harvest is a wise investment.

Victims of timber theft almost always lose financially because of the difficulties in prosecuting thieves and gaining full and fair restitution. In addition, long-term management plans can be severely disrupted, and the expected productivity of the woodlot altered for generations.

Owners must do all they can to prevent thefts, and to assure they are not being cheated in a timber sale. There are no second chances. Essential steps to preventing timber theft include:

Clearly mark your property boundaries

Make your presence known and get to know your neighbors

Establish sound contract provisions

Getting Help if A Timber Theft Occurs

If you happen to catch a timber thief "red handed," immediately call the closest law enforcement agency, such as your local DEC Law Enforcement office, for a DEC officer or ranger. You may also call your local state police or county sheriff's office.

Whomever you call, explain the circumstances and ask that an officer join you in confronting the logger or loggers. Tell the officer that you wish to file a formal complaint and charges against the logger or loggers.

Some pointers

While it's possible to catch the logger in the middle of a theft on the property, such a theft is much more often discovered after the fact. perhaps even years later, especially if a large public or private landowner does not have the resources to regularly check their property. Once the logs and the logger leave the property, it becomes more and more difficult with each passing day to recover from a timber theft. For that reason, it's a good idea to get in the habit of checking your property as often as you can, or have a neighbor check it for you.

Remember - Prevention is the best defense!

Landowner, beware! YOU are responsible for protecting your property and the timber on it. The law can't effectively help the landowner with poorly marked boundaries and vague harvesting contracts, and who failed to check a logger's references did not monitor the harvest.

Other Sources of Help

Private consulting foresters and land surveyors are two professionals who can help the landowner avoid timber theft and a harvest disaster. In case of a timber theft, the owner is encouraged to contact NYS Attorney General's Office and the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation.

To learn more about forestry issues, one is always encouraged to join NYFOA.


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