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More in News
Woodlot theft an issue
STATE — It is, as Rich Merk says "hard to lock up the woods," but many small woodlot owners probably wish they could throw lock and key around their property if it prevented timber theft, trespass and fraud.
Although laws enacted in the last decade have clamped down on the practice, it's still up to Merk, president of the Small Woodland Owners Association of Maine and owner of 120 acres in Otisfield, to keep vigilant.
Illegal timber harvesting was far more common 20 years ago, but remains a perennial problem, says Kent Nelson, Maine Forest Service spokesperson.
According Nelson, MFS rangers investigate around 130 complaints from landowners on an average year.
In 2010, there were 39 convictions for unlawful cutting, about a third in the southern half of the state. The state levied more than $14,600 in fines and demanded nearly $102,000 in restitution in the cases, Nelson says.
Many cases rangers investigate are misunderstandings, Nelson explains. A landowner may not have marked the property boundary adequately and a logger might unintentionally cross it.
Other cases are clear; deliberate theft or fraud, says MFS Ranger Jeff Currier. That stand of mature oak or pine sitting just across a boundary line might be too juicy for a rogue logger to pass up.
Types of theft
Bill Williams, deputy director of SWOAM, says theft accounts for a tiny percentage of logging in Maine.
The overwhelming majority of loggers are law-abiding professionals, Williams says, but as in any industry, there are outliers.
Williams, who spent 35 years as a Maine Forest Ranger, says there's a difference between outright theft and trespassing.
Harvesters sometimes go outside boundaries or take more from a particular woodlot than they agreed to in their contract with the landowner, he says.
That type of theft isn't uncommon, says SWOAM Director Tim Doak. In a lot of cases, taking a couple extra trees might be something a logger feels they can get away with.
Historically, "shorting" landowners by taking more trees than they agreed to or only paying landowners for the first load taken out, has been common partially because it wasn't too hard to get away with, Currier says.
Setting up an illegal operation on private land is more uncommon, Doak says, although it has been a problem, particularly for absentee woodlot owners.
Some illegal harvesting seems innocuous.
Passers-by might think that trimmings left by a road crew clearing a power line or right of way are free for the taking.
Think again, Doak says – regardless who cut it, that wood still belongs to the landowner.
"That's an issue that happens quite often, frankly," Doak says.
Brad Bucknell, the MFS Ranger who covers Oxford Hills, estimates 50 percent of his time is spent investigating cases of theft or trespass.
"It's the biggest issue I deal with," Bucknell says.
Some of the cases Bucknell investigates are cut-and-dried. In other instances, proving wrongdoing can be difficult, particularly if property boundaries are murky.
For example, Bucknell recently investigated a 35-tree harvest on town property in Buckfield.
At a selectmen's meeting last month, Town Manager Dana Lee reported that only big, mature trees were cut on the property, along the town's railroad bed.
After investigating and consulting with the district attorney, however, the DA determined that the landowner's deed, which allowed her to upkeep a right of way to the rail bed, was ambiguous enough that successful prosecution would be impossible.
A number of cases each year are dropped because of property disputes or unclear ownership, like the Buckfield case, Currier says.
Often times, if the boundary is unclear, landowners may decide that the legal and survey-related costs may outweigh possible gain from a civil suit, Nelson adds.
Small cases of theft, where firewood might have been collected, are rarer than commercial theft, but also harder to prove, Bucknell says.
"If you have a commercial harvest ... it's easy to figure out where that's crossed the line, whereas if you have someone who goes out ... and cuts just a couple of trees for firewood, it's harder to prove exactly who cut the trees," he explains.
Cases of theft and trespass often go unreported, however. It's not uncommon for a landowner to decide it isn't worth the energy to contact the authorities, or for an illegal cut to go unnoticed.
The current situation is still far better than it was 20 years ago, says Williams. Back then, a lot of illegal harvesting often went unreported or was not investigated.
Rangers and landowners agree that laws enacted in the last decade have gone a long way in addressing the state's timber theft issue.
One of the most significant changes cited is a 2005 law that requires loggers pay landowners within 45 days of delivering wood to a mill, as well as provide them with a tally sheet of the stumpage harvested and delivered to a mill.
Truckers are also required to record the trips they take from harvest site to a mill.
Those requirements have reduced fraud and theft significantly, Doak says. With stronger record keeping, it's harder to sell black market timber to mills.
A clear paper trail also makes it easier for rangers to investigate complaints.
A second key law, from 2003, requires landowners to clearly mark property lines within 200 feet of the area to be harvested before logging begins.
That helps cut down on the instances of mistakenly crossing onto neighboring property.
The laws are a boon to ranger investigations partially because they're specific to timber and prosecutors have increased cooperation with rangers, giving some extra teeth to investigations, Currier says.
At the same time, local landowners know their own vigilance is the best way to address the perennial problem of theft, trespass and fraud.
"It's never going away," says Doak. "Certainly not every landowner faces this situation, but when you do it can be significant."
Merk says landowners' failure to survey, mark and monitor their own land makes the opportunity for theft or trespass that much greater.
Just because his own woodland hasn't been subject to theft doesn't mean he's not thinking about it happening to his woodlot.
"It's like dealing with any form of theft," Merk explains.
"You have to make the threshold of opportunity so high that a person who intends to steal goes to some other place where the threshold is lower."