ATLANTA -- Timber might seem like a well-rooted asset, but thieves actually are making off with enough truckloads of trees that the state Legislature is considering tripling penalties and empowering state foresters to arrest crooks.
Were trying to make a disincentive to steal timber, said state Rep. Chuck Williams, R-Watkinsville, who is a tree farmer and the bills sponsor.
His House Bill 790 would make thieves liable in civil court for three times the value of timber they steal or damage. Right now, its a one-to-one liability and in Williams opinion is not a strong deterrent.
It also would give foresters of the Georgia Forestry Commission the power to make arrests in timber theft cases, something they can already do in arson investigations.
Timber theft is an unfamiliar crime to sheriffs offices and district attorneys, and evidence turns into milled planks and pulp quickly. Thats part of why Williams wants to empower state foresters to investigate theft cases: They already have good relationships with growers and understand the crime.
There are several ways to loot the roughly $1,000 per acre that timber is worth. One is an invasion by a rogue logging crew, something that can happen undetected, especially when the landowner is an absentee.
You could have a logging crew set up on a place for a week, Williams said, or a crew working on one timber stand could cut over the line, which involves stealing the neighbors timber while working on an adjacent property.
Finally, dishonest haulers may deposit lumber at the mill to the account of some accomplice instead of the actual owner who hired them to carry it.
South Carolina and other states have in recent years strengthened their timber theft laws, said Steve McWilliams, president of the Georgia Forestry Association, an industry group. This law would catch Georgia up, he said.
We know its not an epidemic, said McWilliams, but if you lose timber thats been growing for 20 or 30 years, you dont replace it overnight. For some smaller-scale growers, a stand of timber is a retirement fund, a college fund or a nest egg for emergencies.
Forestry is the third-biggest industry in Georgia by number of employees. Its nearly 50,000 jobs make it second only to food processing and textiles, according to 2012 figures in a Georgia Tech report.
The bill is the result of several hearings last summer and is co-sponsored by state Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
The legislative Rural Caucus plans an informal discussion of the bill next week.