Dear EarthTalk: I heard that timber thefts are increasing across the country. Why would people steal timber and is it a particular kind for a particular use?--Rosie Ng, Stanwood, WA
People are stealing timber for the same reasons they steal anything: to profit from someone else's hard work. What makes timber thefts that much harder to stop is the fact that, most of the time, they occur in remote forested areas and loggers typically don't have to document their sales as meticulously as other kinds of natural resource extraction. With the economy still in the doldrums, it's not surprising that timber thefts appear to be on the rise, at least based on anecdotal evidence from around the country.
"Timber theft can range from a landowner cutting down a neighbor's tree to loggers stealing hundreds or thousands of trees from private or public lands," reports Lori Compas in the September/October 2010 issue of E Magazine. "Investigators say it's difficult to calculate the exact number of trees lost to theft, but losses are estimated at $3 million over the last five years in Mississippi alone." She cites one example there whereby a logger was arrested on three counts of timber theft after clearing some $375,000 worth of trees from land set aside to benefit local schools.
In some cases, thieves are targeting specific types of rare or expensive wood, such as the distinctively patterned birds-eye maple used in some high-end musical instruments. Since there's no way to tell if the wood inside a maple tree will show the birds-eye pattern without cutting into it, thieves aren't scared to damage or potentially kill a tree to find out. "We can see where they've notched trees [on state-owned forest land] to see if they have that desirable pattern," says Larry Raedel, chief law enforcement officer for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. "When they find one that does, they cut down the entire tree and pack out a five- or six-foot section. They might make $300-$400 for a slab of birdseye."
Of course, on the other end of the spectrum, more complex schemes involve unreported or falsified mill receipts. "For instance, a logger might...