Welcome back to our continuing discussions with Nina Cornett of www.timbertheft.org. Nina’s got some stories to share about the challenges of prosecuting U.S. timber theft. And I have to say that the last point is kinda mindblowing.
Q: What surprised you most as you’ve gone through this process of working on timber theft?
How bad the situation is.
It’s not just that timber theft goes on to the extent of perhaps a billion dollars a year in this country, or that nobody seems to care that you’ve been ripped off (“it’s only trees”) but, for example, what happens if you do by some miracle get a criminal prosecution.
I could list a dozen wrong things about just that process, but I’ll confine myself to one.
When our timber was stolen, the thieves left piles of interlaced logs, branches, and tops higher than my head, and up to a quarter of an acre in some areas. We knew that, as soon as the piles dried, they would become pyramids of tinder just waiting for a spark. We needed to get them cut down to the ground to reduce the risk of a fire that would take the rest of our standing trees.
We found it’s very expensive to get slash piles cut down because, as an expert explained to us, cutting one interlaced trunk or branch might cause other parts of the pile to spring up or fall down on the cutter. We checked several contractors and got estimates of around $10,000 for the job.
The Judge accepted the contractor estimates.
But when he got to the point of determining whether more than thousand dollars of malicious mischief had been committed, he ignored that expense and counted only what it would cost to put water bars on the logging roads and seed the scalped areas with the cheapest seed possible. That fell at slightly under the thousand-dollar threshold, so he dismissed the felony criminal mischief charge.
Now I firmly believe that if I dumped a truckload of trash on somebody’s yard that cost 10 thousand dollars to remove, there would be no question that act met the standard for felony criminal mischief, and I have a hard time seeing why our projected cleanup costs didn’t count toward that threshold in our timber case. That’s just one of the many ways that timber theft is treated differently from other theft.
Q: How do you find out about these timber theft victims?
That’s an interesting question. It turns out that in Kentucky, while a lot of crimes are coded and reported under that code, timber theft is not one of them. You can’t sort timber theft out from other theft. So searching state records is not an option.
What happened is that there was a newspaper article about our theft that spawned a short segment on TV news, and victims started calling us. Then people started passing our name and phone number on to victims they knew.
Somewhat later, we put up a couple of websites, and people searching the internet found us that way. It’s strictly a random process. We have no way to learn about victims from our end unless they contact us, and we figure those who find us are a tiny percentage of all victims.
We did recently establish alerts for the phrase “timber theft” on web crawlers such as Google, Talkwalker, and Mention, and that has been helpful.
Q: In this more-than-decadelong process, you must have heard some things that were not just surprising but strange. What is the oddest?
I think it has to be that victim restitution is generally based on stump value, not mill value. I was pointing out to a man in a Kentucky University Forestry Department that awarding a victim only the stump value of a tree was wrong. The victim ought to get at least what the thief sold the logs for at the mill.
The forestry guy responded that the laws on restitution should not be changed that stump value was fair in his view because, after all, “the logger has expenses in cutting the trees and getting them to the mill.”
That astonished me. But it turned out it is a very common view.
It also makes timber theft the only crime I know of in which the thief is allowed to deduct his expenses when restitution is being calculated!
Reposted on June 12.