Greatest Hits 3 – Considering U.S. Timber Theft – Nina Cornett Interview, Pt. 1

When I posted some updates on Lacey, including news of the first U.S. theft based indictment. I got a comment on the post from Nina Cornett, who has been focused fighting U.S. timber theft for nearly a decade now. This is a highly personal cause for her, and you can see why below.

Q. Are you from the wood industry?

Not at all! I was a Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy, which, and sorry for any bragging here, is the highest position attainable in the Navy hierarchy by a non-political appointee. I was responsible for overseeing automation projects for U.S. Navy ships and managed a two-billion-dollar annual budget. Now I am an author and what I guess you would call an activist. I work with the Kentucky Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission and run a nonprofit corporation with the hope to improve the environment and economic conditions of Eastern Kentuckians.

Q:  So how did you get involved in timber theft?

In September 2003, we came down to Kentucky from Alaska to discover that more than a hundred trees had been taken from family land on a ridgetop in Kentucky. The Sheriff’s office referred us to the County Attorney, where we were turned away with the direction, “Go file a civil suit.” We persisted, and finally, the authorities convened a grand jury and issued an indictment. Since justice is notoriously slow in this area, we backed up the criminal action with a civil suit before the statute of limitations expired for civil action. Twelve years later we are still in the courts. By now, we’ve attended more court sessions than most people see in a lifetime.

Q:  How hard has the fight been?

It’s been brutal. I am not a natural salesman; I’m what might be called a nerd or a technical wonk so, however just the cause, selling the idea that something needs to be done about timber theft is very difficult for me. I have to steel myself for nearly every approach to people. And it has been enormously frustrating. But it has been rewarding as well. Even one small victory, such as persuading one person to call timber theft what it is – theft – instead of timber “trespass” – can give me a lift for a whole day.

Q:  What keeps you going?

Partly it was our own timber theft. Partly it was that I am what some people might call nutty about right and wrong. But mostly it was the victims I started to hear from as our story got out.

We heard the saddest stories about victim losses. Some involved farmers losing black walnuts they were planning to sell to feed their cattle through the winter after a drought-stricken summer, instead of having to sell the cattle.

One involved losing oaks the owner had been counting on to send a child to college.

Another involved a couple who lost every tree on their property to clear-cutting, trees they had been counting on to make retirement possible.

Then there was the victim who was a legally blind World War II veteran, now deceased, who lost 30-some oaks up to 50 inches in diameter.

But the common element, and the saddest part every time, was that the victims were almost always old, almost always poor, often in ill health, invariably lacked resources to pursue justice civilly, and were turned away by the criminal authorities in their area. They just had no chance. It made me feel that something had to be done and set me off on this course.

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Terrible stories—this should make you want to become an activist too. So next week, Nina is going to take a tour of different state legislation on timber theft, and you may find a way to help or be inspired to check conditions in your own state. To sign up for updates and news on US illegal logging, go to www.timbertheft.org.

Reposted on June 12.