An analysis of timber trespass and theft issues in the Southern Appalachian region

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Virginia Tech

Timber theft is a crime within the forest industry which has not received a large amount of attention within research literature. As a result, there are no recent estimates available of the extent of the problem. The southern Appalachian region has conditions which seem to be conducive to timber theft, but convictions for timber theft in the area are infrequent. In order to address these issues, a study was undertaken in a 20 county region of the southern Appalachians to interview law enforcement officers and prosecuting attorneys about their knowledge of timber theft and their current level of investigation and prosecution. To ascertain the extent of timber theft, interviews were also carried out with both industrial and non-industrial landowners.

The survey results indicate that both prosecuting attorneys and law enforcement officers are generally knowledgeable regarding timber theft and trespass. Results were similar between those individuals who had experience with the crime as well as those who did not. The overriding perception from both prosecuting attorneys and law enforcement officers was that timber theft should be handled as a civil violation. This perception was primarily a result of the frequent lack of properly located boundary lines to prove ownership of the property, and the difficulty of proving criminal intent. The study found 22 convictions for timber theft out of 36 criminal cases in the past three years.

Due to a low response rate (16%) from non-industrial private forest landowners, estimates of the extent of timber theft were determined from the industrial landowner data and the law enforcement and attorney surveys. Based on these data, the impact of timber theft was conservatively estimated at 120 incidents per year, resulting in a loss of approximately $300,000 per year within the study area. An extrapolation of this to the entire southern Appalachian region would mean over $4 million per year.

The results of this research indicates that there are potential areas for improvement in the conviction of timber theft offenders as well as in reducing the total number of theft incidents. The current statutes used to deal with timber theft are generally inadequate to provide prosecutors with the potential to convict most timber thieves because of the unique evidentiary requirements of a timber theft. As a result, changes in the statute would likely provide the greatest remedy. Civil statutes are also inadequate in many states to provide landowners the opportunity to obtain a suitable civil judgment. Information needs to be disseminated to landowners, law enforcement officers, and prosecuting attorneys about the aspects of timber theft which are most pertinent to them, and how the problem should be dealt with both before and after the theft.

timber, crime, trespass, tree, Appalachian, theft