We’re here again with Nina Cornett, who runs www.ecooutpost.org and www.timbertheft.org. (See Part 1 of our interview from last week here.) She is going to walk us through how some states approach timber theft within their borders.
Q: You live in Kentucky. What’s the situation there?
It is very difficult to prosecute timber theft in Kentucky. We didn’t see anybody else taking up the fight, so we contacted a state legislator from our area, Representative Leslie Combs, and asked for help in getting better laws in Kentucky. Leslie has introduced a bill every session since then, and we have reached the point where the bill has made it through the Kentucky House in the last few sessions, though each time it has died in the Senate. But we will keep trying. If any of your readers are in Kentucky, please ask them to contact me because we need to provide Leslie with support and put some political pressure on the state Legislature.
Q: You mentioned efforts in the Kentucky legislature. How does Kentucky compare with other states in combating timber theft?
Not very well, from the victim’s point of view. A decade or so ago, the Louisville Courier-Journal called timber theft probably the least-prosecuted crime in Kentucky. Historically lack of prosecutions has been the custom in most states.
But states all around us are moving to do better while we lag. A couple of years ago, Georgia strengthened its laws. Indiana does very well. Pennsylvania has moved forward in criminal prosecutions. Louisiana has seen a lot of prosecutions over the last year or so, and Mississippi has taken a number of criminal actions. Just last year, I was asked to provide testimony in favor of a bill strengthening timber theft laws in Ohio. That bill didn’t go anywhere, but it’s a sign that Ohio is trying.
The model, it seems to me, is South Carolina. They set up a professional timber theft investigation unit in their state’s Forestry office a good 10 years ago and have sharply curtailed timber theft in their state.
In fact, Georgia followed the South Carolina model. When I asked the head of the Georgia Task Force why they elected to implement the South Carolina model, he told me that they’d had a timber thief in Georgia who had been taking Georgia citizens’ timber for at least a decade with impunity. That timber thief decided a few years ago to expand his business into South Carolina. Within two years, according to the narrator, the thief was enjoying a term as a guest of the state of South Carolina. That was enough to convince Georgia to implement the South Carolina model.
If we’re going to increase Kentucky’s ranking in the fight against timber theft, we need to do what Georgia so recently did.
Q: You’ve obviously spent considerable time on this. How widespread is timber theft in your view?
Statistics are hard to come by, but I’d say it’s a problem from coast to coast. We’ve heard of victims from Washington State to South Carolina, from New Mexico to Maine. And it happens often. In any given month, I spend hours on the phone with victims.
There is reason to believe that timber theft accounts for about a billion dollars in losses to timber owners, private and public, every year.
Furthermore, it’s not confined to the apparently powerless. In Kentucky, a surprising number of members of the state legislature have been victims of timber theft. They are certainly not powerless in general, but they are nearly as powerless as the rest of us where timber theft is concerned. A state senator from the next county in Kentucky was a victim, and he couldn’t get anyone to even talk to him about his missing trees.
All I can say for sure is that by now I have a long list of victims from all over the U.S.
As you yourself said, there is reason to believe that timber theft accounts for about a billion dollars in losses to timber owners, private and public, every year. Considering that auto theft is a little under $8 billion a year, timber theft is not the piddling offense it is regarded as.