Seattle Times: Timber Theft a Big Problem, but Hard to Quantify

Jeffrey Penman, area measurement specialist with the U.S. Forest Service, stands on the giant stump of a stolen old-growth tree.
Jeffrey Penman, area measurement specialist with the U.S. Forest Service, stands on the giant stump of a stolen old-growth tree.

From today’s Seattle Times:

Next month, a federal court judge will try to put a value on something that’s somewhat priceless: trees stolen from the Olympic National Forest.

The trees in question include old-growth fir, six feet across, that laid down roots before the Revolutionary War; they include intricately patterned maple destined to become high-end musical instruments; they include cedar for shingle or shake.

All of them, the U.S. Attorney’s Office says, were stolen by Reid Johnston, the son of a prominent family that had laid its own roots alongside those same trees on the Olympic Peninsula decades ago. Johnston was sentenced in December to one year in federal prison in one of the largest timber-theft prosecutions in Washington history, involving more than 100 trees. He faces another hearing March 7 to determine the amount of restitution he’ll pay — that is, the value of his haul.

“The fact is, you can’t replace with a dollar amount a 300-year-old Douglas fir tree,” said Matthew Diggs, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case. “It’s like taking an antiquity.”

Experts at the hearing will certainly try, offering estimates of the trees’ worth based on their economic value in the market as well as the ecological cost of their removal. Some of the trees were located in an area designated as marbled murrelet critical habitat.

Despite his guilty plea, Johnston maintains he was wrongly accused — that the trees were on his parents’ property, not in the national forest. (Official land surveys prove otherwise, prosecutors say.) But even he concedes that theft of trees is rampant in Washington, where thousands of dollars can be earned in less than an hour’s work.

“That’s never going to change,” he said. “There’s plenty of wood in the national forest and places they can steal.”

State and federal authorities agree the theft of natural resources, from leafy salal to massive timber, is a growing problem.

“Theft and damage to forest products have reached near epidemic proportions on public lands,” Diggs wrote in court documents.

U.S. Forest Service Special Agent Anne Minden, who is stationed in Washington, said it’s impossible to say for sure how much is stolen.

“It’s an incalculable value, but we do what we can do calculate it,” she said. “They’re somewhat priceless.” The Associated Press in 2003 pegged timber theft as a $1 billion-a-year problem.

Read the entire story here.

12 thoughts on “Seattle Times: Timber Theft a Big Problem, but Hard to Quantify”

  1. In my 12 years of Sale Administration experience, I’ve only found two incidents of timber theft. One of those involved a safety issue, which was resolved and not deemed to be “timber theft”. The other incident included “designation by description”, where a faller took a tree that definitely didn’t meet the description. The logger was charged triple stumpage for that tree. The stump in the picture shows how it is tough to get away with “stealing trees”. You can clearly see the orange stump mark, indicating it was a “leave tree”.

    There is a chance that the tree was cut because a “cut tree” was hung up in the bigger tree. That kind of situation doesn’t allow for cutting the big tree, however. On my projects, there is a standard process for dealing with such hazards. “Cut trees” also have required stump marks, indicating that it was legally cut.

    Smart loggers NEVER cut undesignated timber. It just isn’t worth losing your business, your money, your equipment or your freedom. I seriously doubt that the Associated Press has any real idea of how much or how little timber theft happens, who steals it, and why. They are more concerned with controversy and blather. With fewer Forest Service people doing field work, that means there are fewer eyes and ears in the woods. Yes, some people like that situation.

    • I think the red paint is a courtroom exhibit # (in this case “5”) on the stump. It was sprayed on after the tree was stolen. The photo is from the U.S. Attorney’s Office and it’s likely that Mr. Penman was a government witness in the tree theft trial.

      • While there is a chance that the stump was painted after the tree was cut, it could also be that the unit was “leave tree marked”. That means that trees not marked with paint will be cut. There is not much chance that such a painted tree (paint band at dbh and at least two stump marks) of that size could be “accidentally” cut.

        Here in California, VERY few large trees get cut, making it very unusual to see huge logs at a landing. I would certainly investigate where such a log came from.

        If timber theft is indeed such a problem, as far back as 2003, how come the Forest Service hasn’t addressed this problem? There is supposed to be someone on every project monitoring operations. As a Harvest Inspector, I always liked telling the logger I was a “certified tattletale”, just to plant that seed of fear. Just yesterday, I did a search on USAJobs for “Harvest Inspector”. There was not even one position advertised for the entire country!

  2. Larry, it’s not clear to me that this person is actually a federal contractor of timber or just cut some trees in the forest (near his parents’ house). It sounds from this story as if people with log trucks are around in the woods cutting trees that might be far from any timber sale. The questions I would ask are “is this equally a problem on private lands? Why or why not?”

    I also have to say that the Forest Service sometimes cuts other people’s trees across boundaries, due to various kinds of mistakes. I remember folks in the FS and the landowner working out the charges assessed to the FS in one particular case early in my career.

    • I have heard that Federal lawyers don’t want to hear about timber theft, unless the value is over $5000. I have seen where trees were blown down across a road, and probably removed with a self-loading log truck. The culprit was never found but, there wasn’t more than 2-3 loads of logs there. We have to deal with “checkerboarded” land ownership in much of California. 20 years ago, we used to refresh blazed landlines but, that never seems to happen anymore. Too labor intensive.

      • it’s interesting that people I know were having trouble getting DOJ to charge people with trespass for building on public land.
        I wish they could charge everyone who steals from feds (trees, property, whatever) but I wonder what their decision tree for what they go after looks like, and if it is public information.

  3. The matriarch is gone but look at her progeny! Does anyone else see the symbolism in that photo? If ever a stand needed an energy wood thinning the sapling/pole stand in the background is it. Am I the only one who sees the future not in preserving the old (a nice thought) but in managing the new – using innovative technology to meet changing national needs.

  4. Ahh. but remember, if the USG had accidentally cut the tree, the same attorney would be arguing quite the opposite. That’s the way the system is structured. And perhaps a reason that the courtroom is not the best place to develop land management decisions…

  5. The majority of sawmills can not process a tree of that diameter. I guess if it was cedar they could take shake bolts, but it looks like douglas fir to me. Our local mill lowers the price on any log over 24 inch diameter.


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