Timber Trespass in the Commonwealth

A report on the prevention of timber theft

This report was prepared by the Virginia Department of Forestry in response to HB 291 submitted by Del. Joe Johnson in the 2012 General Assembly session to require landowners to notify their neighbors at least 60 days prior to conducting a timber harvest.

December 6, 2012

Timber Trespass in Virginia

Options to prevent timber theft and assist landowners

In response to a timber trespass incident suffered by a landowner in Washington County, Del. Joe Johnson submitted legislation in the 2012 General Assembly session to require landowners to notify their neighbors at least 60 days prior to conducting a timber harvest. The bill would also require the landowners to send written certification to the State Forester that the notices had been sent to the adjoining landowners. Forest landowner and industry organizations raised concerns that the proposed legislation, if implemented, would result in significant costs and potential disruptions to the timber industry supply in Virginia. Delegate Johnson withdrew the bill in order to afford forestry stakeholders an opportunity to identify other methods to address timber trespass.

The first step in that process was a meeting of invited Virginia forestry stakeholders convened by Delegate Johnson; Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Todd Haymore, and State Forester Carl Garrison of the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF). The meeting was held in Abingdon in June of 2012; participants included representatives from the forest industry, including timber buyers, corporate forest landowners and forest products producers. Also represented were consulting foresters, loggers, forest landowners, Virginia Cooperative Extension, the College of Natural Resources and Environment at Virginia Tech, the US Forest Service, local law enforcement and the local Commonwealth’s Attorney, as well as the landowner who originally brought the issue to Delegate Johnson’s attention.

The purpose of the meeting was to discuss possible solutions for preventing timber trespass in Virginia. The VDOF studied the suggestions from this meeting as well as the published results from similar efforts in other states to identify strategies that could be successfully implemented in Virginia. The strategies that offer the greatest likelihood of being successful given the resources available are described in this report; strategies are grouped into two categories, prevention and prosecution.

Timber trespass involves the harvest of trees without permission from the landowner; it can be either intentional or accidental. It is clear that timber trespass occurs throughout Virginia; however the extent of the problem has not been well-documented. There are various scenarios that can result in timber trespass, such as:

  1. when the property line is not known, is not marked or is disputed between neighbors, the logger may cut over the line unintentionally;
  2. the landowner selling timber may misrepresent the location of the property line and thereby sell the neighboring timber as his or her own, or
  3. the logger may intentionally commit timber trespass by crossing a known property line.

In every case, the burden of determining that timber trespass has occurred, identifying the logger, calculating the value of the lost trees, and recouping that value falls upon the landowner. Each of these steps presents hurdles to the landowner and results in a process that the landowner may view as unfair and often leads to an unsatisfactory outcome for the victim. Taking steps to prevent or reduce the incidence of timber trespass would help to protect forest landowners from loss and improve public perception of Virginia’s forest industry. Assistance for victims seeking compensation and the issuance of stiffer penalties for those who harvest carelessly or criminally also are viewed by some as necessary.

I. Prevention of Timber Trespass

Boundary Line Marking - Landowners

If the locations of all property lines were legally established on the ground, agreed to by all adjoining landowners, clearly marked in the field, and universally respected by loggers, accidental timber trespass would be virtually eliminated. There can be little expectation of achieving such a result in the real world, but steps can be taken toward this goal.

Landowners have the ultimate responsibility for protecting their property from trespass and theft. For forest landowners, locating and marking their property lines and maintaining those marks over time will help to prevent instances of timber trespass. Virginia Code § 55-334.1 prescribes how property lines are to be marked such that, in the event of prosecution for timber trespass, having crossed the marked line demonstrates intent to steal the timber. The code specifies the distance between marks, their minimum size, and how high they are to be from the ground. However, there are many established methods for marking property lines that would also effectively identify the lines to a timber buyer or logger.

Boundary line marking is considered to be a prudent step that should be taken by all forest landowners. However, not all landowners are aware of the need for or the benefits of marking their boundaries. There was a strong consensus at the stakeholder meeting that landowner education to raise awareness of the need for and means of properly marking property lines is a critical part of any strategy to address timber trespass. Virginia is fortunate to have well-established landowner education programs that can be used to provide this outreach and training. During the stakeholder meeting, representatives from the VDOF, Virginia Tech, and Virginia Cooperative Extension all agreed to work together to develop an integrated outreach program addressing boundary line marking.

Once landowners are convinced of the need to mark their boundaries, they face the burden of having to locate and mark those lines. Identifying property lines can require either expensive surveys or specialized knowledge and skill on the part of the landowner. Unfortunately, this burden is borne entirely by the landowner, who often does not have the wherewithal or the resources to locate and mark his or her boundaries. For the landowner who is selling his or her timber, these costs can be offset by the timber income and some of the work may be performed by his or her forester or logger. However, this option is not available to landowners who do not plan to harvest timber.

Landowners who are not actively managing their properties are also less likely to be reached by education programs targeted to forest landowners. Education is also less likely to reach absentee landowners, the population who may be at greatest risk from timber trespass. Education and outreach programs specific to these groups are needed. The forest landowner outreach programs mentioned above will be expanded going forward to provide similar outreach to rural landowners who may not respond to training focused on forest management.

Boundary Line Marking – Timber Buyers/Loggers

When a timber buyer or logger purchases timber from a landowner, it is prudent for him or her to mark the boundary of the sale area and verify that the area belongs to the seller, but there is no requirement for this to be done. An education campaign targeted to loggers and consulting foresters could be implemented to improve timber sale boundary marking and to emphasize the importance of verifying property lines. The VDOF and Virginia Tech CNRE along with industry groups have well-established training programs that could and will be used to provide this training.

Notification

Notification of adjoining landowners prior to conducting a timber harvest has been suggested to allow neighbors to take steps to prevent timber trespass. In order to be effective, this approach would require research to identify and collect accurate contact information for all adjoining landowners; mailing letters or making phone calls along with some method of verification that notification was completed, and then allowing a period of time for the adjoining landowners to act on the notification.

Notification would require considerable resources that do not currently exist and would introduce significant delay into timber sales. The extra work would result in significant costs that would be borne by either the industry or the owner, depending on how the system was set up. The delay in timber harvests could result in lower prices for landowners if they miss the opportunity to respond quickly to changes in the timber markets or the weather. Notification also faces the same challenges as the education programs-- absentee landowners and those physically unable to access their properties would have difficulty acting on the information.

One thing that landowners can do to protect themselves from timber trespass is to contact the adjoining landowners and provide them with current contact information. Their neighbors may be willing to contact them in the event that they do sell timber adjoining the property line. The landowner may also ask their neighbors to help watch their property and alert them if timber harvesting occurs in the area.

Industry Engagement

The forest industry supports the idea of assuring the highest level of integrity in the forest products business and fair treatment of all who are maintaining ethical business practices. There are also opportunities for businesses to be proactive in their contribution to the reduction of timber theft and trespass. As examples, mills could maintain a chain of custody for timber purchased for a specified period of time. Mills could also get affidavits from sellers verifying that they own the timber being sold by them. Developing these tools could be pursued by the forest products industry as a set of standard operating procedures or best management practices that are implemented by individual mills.

II. Prosecution and Recovery of Damages

Valuing Lost Timber

In order to establish the value of trees that were taken, the appraiser must rely on formulas and measurements of nearby trees to determine the size of the cut trees based on the residual stumps. Because timber trespass often involves the stealing of the best trees, estimating their size and quality based on nearby trees will tend to undervalue the lost trees, lowering the compensation to the landowner. Training for consulting foresters on timber trespass appraisals could expand the pool of qualified appraisers and provide landowners with more accurate values. This training could be provided by the local chapters of the Society of American Foresters or the Association of Consulting Foresters in Virginia, as appropriate.

Determining the Extent of the Problem

Information on the frequency and distribution of suspected timber trespass cases across Virginia is mostly anecdotal. Making a concerted effort to gather information on reported cases would help to identify how widespread the problem is and may allow us to place a monetary value on timber trespass. This information could be used to justify greater attention from police and prosecutors. This information could also help to identify areas, or even specific contractors, that generate an inordinate number of complaints. If particular areas or contractors are identified, then strategies can be developed to target them specifically.

The VDOF will make an effort to seek out reports of suspected timber trespass, utilizing field staff contact with landowners and with local law enforcement as well as with industry. The VDOF could also seek additional funding to develop a landowner survey. This would not capture all suspected cases but it would provide an indication of the level of suspected trespass occurring.

Increase Law Enforcement Awareness

Once the prevalence of timber trespass is better understood, this information can be used to encourage law enforcement to place more emphasis on these crimes. This may be particularly effective in areas where trespass is shown to be more common or for loggers who appear to be repeat offenders. A model education campaign could be developed for local law enforcement agencies; this model could then be replicated across the state.

Outcome

The Commonwealth of Virginia and all of the forestry stakeholders have a common concern for and commitment to preventing timber trespass while not creating an unnecessary burden on any stakeholder group. The Virginia Department of Forestry stands ready to assist in the development of the proposals or initiatives described herein.

Based on the consensus evident at the stakeholder meeting, the VDOF has committed to working with Virginia Tech CNRE and VSU to develop landowner education programs regarding the prevention of timber trespass and marking property lines. These programs will include outreach efforts specific to absentee landowners and to landowners that are not interested in forest management.

The VDOF will also work with Virginia Tech CNRE to provide training to loggers and consulting foresters regarding timber sale boundary marking and verifying property lines. Specific information regarding timber trespass and timber theft will be added to the Women and Land workshops; the SHARP Logger training program; the Forestry & Wildlife Field Tours, and all similar educational programs. This information will also appear in VDOF’s Forestry News and VCE’s Virginia Forest Landowner Update newsletters.

In addition, VDOF will publish the information on its website and ensure that it is search engine optimized so that any relevant information searches on Google, Bing, etc., push people to the VDOF website in response to their queries regarding timber trespass and/or timber theft. Also, through its local offices, VDOF will seek out reported incidents of timber trespass and theft to better describe the extent of the problem in Virginia. In June of 2013, the VDOF will provide to the Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry a summary of suspected timber trespass cases reported and outreach efforts completed by the cooperating agencies.

Last modified: Thursday, 06-Nov-2014 10:25:09 EST