Business

New law to crack down on timber theft

Stealing timber from a landowner is not like stealing a car. It could take 20-plus years for fully grown trees to be replaced.

But prior to a Georgia law that went into effect July 1, owners of timberland had little recourse if trees were intentionally or -- more likely -- unintentionally cut from the wrong property, said Matt Hestad, communications coordinator with the Georgia Forestry Association.

Also, cases in which loggers or others in the timber industry took advantage of unsuspecting landowners often were not fully investigated or prosecuted.

“Of course, stealing timber was a crime, but one of the huge problems we saw was that our landowners had nowhere to go in case of timber theft,” Hestad said.

Local county sheriff’s deputies would be called, but often they had more serious crimes to handle -- sometimes with limited resources and officers -- and “timber theft investigations came in at the bottom of the list,” Hestad said.

But the Timber Security Law gives the Georgia Forestry Commission more investigative and arresting power in cases of unauthorized timber harvest, much like its authority in cases of timber arson. The commission’s officer will continue to work with local law enforcement.

“(Forestry officers) know where the mills are located. They have a one-on-one connection with timber landowners (and) the loggers,” Hestad said. “They are involved with the community, and ... if timber gets stolen, they know what could have happened ... and they are well-equipped to deal with it. We wanted them to have the authority to investigate and make arrests.”

It’s hard to say yet what impact the new law will have, said Brian Clavier, associate chief of forest protection and chief of law enforcement for the Georgia Forestry Commission.

“This is a significant change,” Clavier said in an email. “Alabama and South Carolina have indicated they investigate 100 to 150 cases each year, so we anticipate a very similar number considering Georgia has more timberland acres.”

The consequences of violating the law could be significant.

“Basically, any theft depends on the circumstances, value of the property taken, et cetera,” he said. “There is a specific statute that requires a landowner to be paid for timber within 20 days of the harvest. If the value of the timber is more than $500, it is a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.”

Following the signing of the new law, the forestry association reinstated its timber theft reward program. It offers a $1,000 reward to people who provide information that leads to the arrest and conviction of anyone involved in cases of timber theft or timber arson.

‘A FEW BAD ACTORS’

Earl Barrs, who lives on and manages the 1,500-acre Gully Branch Tree Farm in Cochran with his wife, Wanda, said though the honest mistakes made in the industry outweigh the dishonest ones, there has been “some history of a few bad actors.”

As president of Knapp-Barrs & Associates Inc., Barrs also owns and manages timberland in multiple states across the Southeast.

Some people have “represented themselves to be legitimate timber buyers who would not pay for all the wood or would misrepresent the amount they would cut,” he said.

Barrs told of a situation when a man moved into Bibb County, and he “was a crook, and he used the weak laws to take advantage of people,” Barrs said. “He made a mistake. He went to South Carolina, and he did the same thing, and they ... put him in jail.

“Ideally, your average landowner, who would sell once or twice in a lifetime, they wouldn’t have the expertise to protect themselves and get a fair price and get paid what they should,” Barrs said. “They could be absentee landowners, or they could live there and just not know how many loads of trees are coming off their land and (not know) the weight of those loads. There are a lot of unknowns in the process for someone who is not in the business.”

Those affected could lose a significant chunk of a long-term investment.

While a couple of truck loads of timber might not sound like much, the value of those trees could range from several hundred dollars to thousands of dollars.

For example, the 2013 price for pine pulpwood averaged $6 to $16 a ton; chip and saw lumber was about $14 to $19 a ton; and saw timber, which is from tall, mature trees used for construction lumber, ran about $23 to $38 a ton, Hestad said.

Wade Hall, president of Stuckey Timberlands Inc., a family-owned timber business in Eastman, said he’s worked in the industry for 30 years, and while he has not personally had timber stolen from him, he has heard of some cases.

“Typically, they are smaller, private landowners who are not actively involved in the managing and selling of timber on a frequent basis,” said Hall, who also is chairman of the Georgia Forestry Association.

Stuckey Timberlands owns and manages about 40,000 acres, which is in 18 counties centered around Dodge County, he said.

To help prevent any mistakes, the boundaries of the timberland his company owns are marked every five years. The land also is monitored fairly closely.

“People use our property for deer hunting or turkey hunting or camping or to ride horses,” he said. “There is activity on those tracts every year.”

TIMBER INDUSTRY MAKES ECONOMIC IMPACT

The timber industry has a significant impact on the state’s economy.

While 91 percent of timberland in Georgia is privately owned, it covers two-thirds of the land area of the state, according to information compiled by the state forestry association. Georgia’s forestry industry generates about $604 million per year in revenues for the state budget.

In Middle Georgia, which comprises 11 counties, the economic impact of forest landowners and the forest industry includes an economic output of more than $1.14 billion, about 3,500 in employment and more than $187 million in salaries, according to a 2012 Georgia Tech study.

And the forests are not only significant for their economic impact, but also they provide recreation benefits and are important to hunters, birdwatchers, hikers and campers.

“There is a good market for trees (in Georgia), therefore landowners want to keep their land in trees,” Hestad said. “As long as there is a good market, they will continue to replant and continue to enjoy their property.”

To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223.

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