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Timberjackers might have their eyes on your valuable trees

If you are like most people today, you take steps to protect yourself from thieves and burglars. Let's run through your nightly checklist...

Your car is locked and the alarm is on. Outside security lights illuminate the driveway. All doors and windows securely closed and locked. Motion detectors on. Fido snoozing in front of the wall safe. Sounds secure enough, doesn't it?

But wait! What about your trees?

TREES? That's right. Tree theft is becoming an increasing serious problem across America. As the value of timber rises, thieves are turning to trees as a source of quick income.

There's even a name being applied to these criminals. You've heard of the hijacker, the skyjacker and the carjacker. Now meet the timberjacker... not to be confused, of course, with the lumberjack.

"Timberjacking" is defined as taking trees from a landowner's property without his or her consent. And a timber thief can reap $100,000 for a few hard days' work in the woods, according to some estimates.

Who are the victims of these chainsaw felons? Lumber companies, private landowners... and you, members of the general public. The losses from lumber companies alone, by their own estimates, run to about $350 million annually. But private landowners account for approximately 55 percent of lumber production. Various estimates put the total amount of stolen lumber at around $1 billion in "sawmill" value.

How does tree theft happen? There are various typical scenarios. For example, a neighboring landowner might – quite legitimately – hire a logging company to harvest trees on his property. But then the logging company (or their unscrupulous employees, perhaps) notice some valuable-looking trees just on YOUR side of the property line. Within minutes, several of your trees could be felled and on their way to the sawmill.

Another scenario involves the "independent contractors" of the timberjacking community: individuals who are on the lookout for valuable trees, often on relatively small areas of privately owned landscape, such as your backyard, perhaps. They move in, cut and leave in a hurry, often when the landowner is on vacation or otherwise away from his or her property.

It can be truly heartbreaking to return home and find nothing but a clean-cut stump where your favorite and much-loved tree used to stand. And replacing that tree to its full glory could take 40, 50 or even a hundred years. I don't know about you, but I don't have that much time to wait.

For the most part, there's a feeling that law enforcement agencies are unlikely to view tree theft as a major priority. After all, most police departments might be disinclined to transfer detectives from a murder investigation to "the case of the missing maple." This means relatively low risk and potentially high profits for the bad guys.

However, some states are beginning to get tough ontimberjackers, according to an article at the "About Forestry" website. Pressured by lumber companies and private landowners, lawmakers in Louisiana, Delaware and Washington are instituting stricter civil trespass codes, awarding multiple damages for trees and awarding reforestation costs.

If you are concerned about the possibility of losing your own trees to theft, I suggest you read the entire article located at http://forestry.about.com/library/weekly/aa121999.htm You can find a direct link to that article and related topics by going to my web site www.landsteward.org and finding this column archived under "The Plant Man" heading.

What can you do to minimize the likelihood that you will be the victim of tree theft?

First and foremost, it is essential that you mark the boundaries of your property if you expect to have any legal recourse. According to the About Forestry article, most statutes impose penalties against good-faith violators "only when trees are removed across ownership lines, marked boundary lines, or outside designated cutting area lines" that are plainly described or visible. You must establish these boundaries or risk losing any timber theft case in court.

Ask your neighbors to tell you if and when they are planning any logging near your common boundary, and assure them you'll do the same. If logging is planned, walk the boundary with your neighbor and the logger. This, says About Forestry, helps prevent what it politely calls "misunderstandings".

If you are planning to have some of your own trees harvested, paint-mark those trees to be cut, and put an additional mark close to the ground where the stump will remain. This will give you a quick visual reference in the event an unauthorized tree is removed.

I'll continue the theme of tree theft and its prevention in a future column, and I'll include a list of trees that timberjackers find most desirable. Meanwhile, I hope this column has increased your awareness of the problem and helped you think of ways to protect your beautiful and much-loved trees.

The Plant Man is here to help. Send your questions about trees, shrubs and landscaping to [email protected] and for resources and additional information, including archived columns, visit www.landsteward.org often.

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