“In the Field” - Forest Rangers and Timber Trespass
by Karin R. Tilberg, Deputy Commissioner
Department of Conservation
We had been waiting for snow, as winter moved steadily along, but had not yet felt its presence. Until I drove to Island Falls to visit the Maine Forest Service Rangers who work there. This day, the snow fell thickly and quickly, ushering in a transformed landscape and the beginning of another winter season in the woods of Maine. I had arranged to spend a day in the field with Forest Rangers Bill Greaves, Aaron Bailey, George Harris, Rick Cole, Chris Beyer, Kevin Somers and Jeremiah Crockett and to learn more about the serious and growing problems of timber trespass and timber theft.
The Maine Forest Service’s Forest Protection Division is responsible for protecting public and private forest land and other property from forest fires and to provide forest resource protection through enforcement of the state’s natural resource laws. In additional to extinguishing fires, Forest Rangers help enforce the Forest Practices Act, Land Use Regulation Commission Act and rules, timber theft and timber trespass laws, as well as laws regarding recreational vehicles, Christmas tress and litter. The Rangers also assist in enforcing water quality laws in concert with the Department of Conservation and Land Use Regulation Commission. They are the “face” of the Department of Conservation in the field as they work with landowners, woods workers, and recreationalists.
An issue gathering increasing attention of Forest Rangers throughout the state is that of timber theft and timber trespass. Maine Forest Service Rangers are devoting more and more of their time toward the prevention and investigation of these violations. For example: complaints due to timber theft and trespass have risen from less than 200 six years ago, to 338 in 2004; Forest Rangers spent about 4500 hours on theft and trespass issues in 1999 and now spend about 5700 hours annually; and the number of cases prosecuted has risen from 11 in 1999 to 30 in 2004.
Timber theft is when someone deprives a landowner of their property or proceeds by intentionally or knowingly cutting their trees without permission or failing to pay for stumpage proceeds. Timber trespass is when an individual intentionally, knowingly or recklessly cuts the timber of another without the consent of the owner. These are technical definitions but the heartache and anger can be very real when a landowner discovers that someone else has cut the landowner’s trees without permission or has cheated them of the value of those trees. The sense of betrayal can be devastating.
Examples of timber theft complaints could include someone going onto the land of another and cutting their trees knowing they do not have authorization or when a person who is contracted to cut on another’s property fails to pay the owner for all of the loads. An example of timber trespass would be a situation where a person ignores a boundary line and harvests trees on the wrong side of it.
Forest Rangers Bill Greaves and Aaron Bailey invited me to join them as they investigated a wood lot where a complaint had been made of timber trespass. As we toured the parcel, I learned that there are common characteristics found in timber trespass cases. Often, the property owner lives out of state or some distance from the woodlot. Usually, the woodlot contains high-value forest products. Frequently, the owner is elderly and often there is no written contract. The harvester is usually a sole proprietor with a 1-2 skidder operation.
As we walked through the early snow, we noted that this woodlot had been moderately cut. Follow up trips would assess the volume and value of the harvested trees. However, the Forest Ranger staff’s’ work in a timber trespass case involves far more than the field work, however. Considerable time and effort is devoted to reviewing any written agreements, documenting property boundaries, reviewing harvest notifications, and scrutinizing trip tickets, scale slips, public records and payments/deposits. Much of the Ranger’s work involves meticulous analysis of paper trails in preparation for a potential trial. The bottom line is that Forest Rangers must have a solid case to present to District Attorneys who will prosecute a case in court.
Stumpage prices for specific species and products have increased significantly in the past five years. This may be tempting unscrupulous individuals to illegally harvest wood and to hope that they will not get caught. The diligent efforts of Forest Rangers such as Bill Greaves, Aaron Bailey and others ensures that “crime doesn’t pay.” As we walked through the woodlot in deepening snow I felt pride in Maine’s Forest Service Rangers for taking on this important work—work that benefits forest landowners both large and small throughout the State of Maine.