Principal Current Project - Timber Piracy in Kentucky
Please note that this material is focused on timber theft. There is no intent to imply that all or most loggers are timber thieves. In fact, honest loggers have an interest in curbing timber theft because timber thieves smirch the reputation of the entire timber industry, and most honest loggers support efforts to reduce timber theft.
TIMBER PIRACY is a major problem in Kentucky and across the United States. It occurs in almost every state in the Union. One study out of Virginia Polytechnic University estimated the loss in the Southern Appalachians at four or five million dollars a year. Upon further investigation, there is reason to believe that this estimate is grievously low. For instance, the South Carolina Forestry Department estimates timber theft at ten million dollars a year in South Carolina alone. Single thefts reach seven figures in places. In fact, one estimate puts that timber theft in the United States at a billion dollars per year. Considering that auto theft is estimated at around eight billion dollars a year, timber theft is clearly not petty theft - it is a major crime that desperately needs better solutions..
Although efforts have been made periodically to strengthen laws against timber theft in Kentucky, they have not been successful. The Louisville Courier-Journal, in an article a few years back, called timber theft perhaps "the least-prosecuted crime in Kentucky." It is rare to find a law-enforcement officer who will even investigate timber theft, much less take a case to the courts. It is also rare to find a criminal prosecutor that will pursue a case.
That renders timber theft appallingly easy in Kentucky, and recourse almost unsurmountably difficult. Fair compensation for victims is even rarer.
There are a number of reasons for the lack of enforcement, starting with deficiencies in the laws, deficiencies that effectively incentivize timber theft. Some of these are:
- The lack of interest by law enforcement authorities in investigating and prosecuting timber theft. Part of that comes from the almost-universally prevalent attitude that stealing timber is not really stealing. Much of the rest of the reluctance to prosecute comes from a combination of factors. One is the extremely tight budgets of local law enforcement agencies and of prosecuting attorneys. A second is the lack of experience and training for law enforcement in the techniques of investigating timber theft - comparing stump configuration to that of timber bought by mills, for instance. Another is the difficulty of prosecuting because the laws are so weak, as touched on both above and below. Commonwealth's Attorneys in many locations have almost a superhuman workload. They are geared to prosecute the cases they believe they can win, not necessarily the worst offenses.
- The "gate fee" levied on timber theft victims even get into the system, criminal or civil. If A contracts with B to cut A's timber, and B cuts logs from the land of victim C, it is customarily not A or B who is required to arrange and pay for a survey, but C, the innocent victim and the only person not making money from the logging job. C is also generally required to hire a professional timber consultant to estimate his loss before any legal action is taken. Most victims either cannot afford this entry fee or doubt whether the outcome will justify the outlay. Criminal prosecution being rare (all too many victims are told when they approach law enforcement to go file a civil suit), civil remedies requiring not only money for surveys and timber consultants but also for an attorney, and many victims being poor, most victims are effectively barred from legal recourse.
- The lack of written contracts containing defined boundaries of areas to be logged .When timber is taken from land outside the boundaries of the contracted job, this lack of written, defined boundaries makes it impossible to determine whether the person who contracted for the logging or the person who does the actual cutting is responsible, and each will generally blame the other. This finger-pointing with no means of determining the facts presents a major hindrance to successful prosecution.
- The general attitude that a victim needs to be compensated only for the stump value of the timber, not what the thief gained from the theft. Since stump value is generally set at one-third to one-fourth of the sawmill price, thieves are willing to take a chance that they can steal and not be caught because getting away with even a few jobs is extremely lucrative. Even if caught, a thief who sold stolen timber for $15,000 but has to pay stump value of $5000 or less has still made a tidy profit. Compensating victims based on stump value insteead of the value the thief realized is sometimes justified on the grounds that the thief has expenses in getting the timber out and to the mill. Timber theft appears to be one of the few, or the only, crime for which the criminal's expenses are routinely deducted when compensation to the victim is calculated. In effect, this approach pays the thief to steal.
- The difficulty of receiving adequate compensation. Most courts, in terms of damage, will look only at the the expenses the victim may incur to restore the land to meet clean water standards set out by Federal Law. This essentially amounts to water bars across steep roads and the cheapest grass that can be sowed on damaged lands. Yet, the victim's cost of true restoration is likely to include major debris removal, recontouring the land to its original shape, replacing topsoil, and replanting at least seedlings, if not mature trees. That is rarely considered. One judge in a recent case accepted the estimates the victim obtained indicating it would cost $10,000 just to cut to the ground the slash piles, tree tops, and other debris the thief had left (important for protecting the land from subequent forest fires), but did not consider that the damage done by the thief met the felony criminal mischief standard, which is a mere $1000 in damages. The victim very justifiably felt that if one person had dumped tons of debris on another's lawn that cost ten thousand dollars to remove, the courts would properly count that damage as surpassing the $1000 felony criminal mischief threshold. But, as mentioned earlier, timber theft is regarded differently in the courts. The problem of debris and damage is generally dismissed with the statement that logging is a messy business, as though the victim had agreed to be victimized and should have expected what he got. So, even if the victim wins the case, what he is likely to receive is a fraction of his losses and expenses. This is another factor that discourages victims from acting.
Timber thieves often prey on the elderly, those in ill health, and those who live away from their timber land because they are easy victims. The poor are also often victims because they are poor; a victim who cannot afford to enter the justice system is the easiest victim of all.
Victims of timber theft don't usually understand the laws, the legal system, the obstacles, and the conditions they will be subjected to. To give victims some idea of what they will be facing when they become victims of timber theft, see the Detailed Guide For Timber Theft Victims.