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Timber theft legislation appears to gain momentum

The growing awareness of the magnitude of timber theft in Kentucky is spurring legislative action in Frankfort.

Kentucky House Speaker Jody Richards has authorized a legislative task force to look into timber theft and other issues affecting Kentucky’s forests. The task force, chaired by Representative Rick Nelson, whose district includes Bell County and part of Harlan County, has 11 members, mostly from eastern Kentucky districts. They include local Representative Leslie Combs, who has been a leader in the attempt to get legislation to control timber theft.

In the last legislative session, Representative Combs introduced a bill on timber theft which garnered considerable attention. In the same session, state Senator Julian Carroll introduced a similar bill on the Senate side. Although neither bill made it to a floor vote during the session, Combs’s bill did advance far enough to receive a committee hearing. Combs is on record as saying that she will continue to pursue the legislation.

The legislative task force met in Frankfort near the end of November and heard testimony on the five most important issues facing woodland owners and the forest industry in Kentucky. The discussion and recommendations on timber theft, which ranked second in the list of issues, were presented by Jim Corum, the chairman of the board of the Kentucky Woodland Owners Association (KWOA); Pat Cleary, an independent consulting forester from the Prestonsburg area and a member of the KWOA Board; Bob Bauer, the executive director of the Kentucky Forest Industries Association; Jeff Stringer, who manages the Master Logger Program at the University of Kentucky, and Mike Haines of the Kentucky Division of Forestry.

Cleary testified to the problems surrounding timber theft and the difficulty in getting law enforcement to act. He stated that as much as 30 percent of his work as a consulting forester revolves around timber theft incidents. He also pointed out that timber theft cases that do make it to the courts, civil or criminal, do not enjoy a high priority and may drag on for half-dozen years or more.

The testimony of the latter three witnesses revolved around the list maintained by the University of Kentucky of certified loggers and of those loggers classified as “bad actors” — loggers whose actions violate the Clean Water Act.

The act of timber theft and timber trespass do not qualify one for the “bad actor” list, but the witnesses who testified before the task force believe there is some overlap between those who violate the Clean Water Act and those who take timber that does not belong to them. They proposed to strengthen prosecution of “bad actors” in the anticipation that timber theft will be reduced by some percentage.

Nina Cornett of Blackey also testified before the committee, principally about the issues facing timber theft victims in Kentucky. The issues she listed included the apparent magnitude of the problem, the fact that there is a ‘gate fee’ in the form of costly surveys and timber assessments that a victim is expected to pay for before a criminal prosecution or civil suit will even begin, and the difficulty victims have in finding an attorney to take timber civil cases.

Cornett reiterated Cleary’s testimony that most victims are unable to persuade law enforcement to take action in timber cases, adding that many victims are turned away with the admonition to file a civil suit. She pointed out that, because of these difficulties, compounded by the age, poor health, and limited financial resources of many of those affected, victims are often unable to, or make no effort to, pursue the issue. For that reason, the number of victims of timber theft is unknown, but it is believed that only a small percentage of them ever enter the formal process.

In those cases where a victim is successful in getting some action, many are never pursued to a resolution. In recent years, in Letcher and nearby counties, at least four victims have died in the process of pursuing justice.

At the end of the section on timber theft, Corum and the other presenters offered four recommendations: 1) Strengthen criminal prosecution of timber theft. 2) Make sure any legislation includes all stakeholders. 3) Strengthen fine collection and enforcement for loggers who violate provisions of the Clean Water Act. 4) Establish a law enforcement unit within the Kentucky Division of Forestry to increase criminal prosecution of timber theft and arson.

The timber theft issue sparked the largest number of questions by the legislators, and took up the largest block of time of the five issues laid before the task force. The questions ranged from transportation of the timber to issues relating to the lumberyards that buy the timber. Most of the legislators appeared to be aware of the problem of timber theft, and a number of them cited citizen contacts during the 2008 session asking them to support Representative Combs’s bill. Some legislators were aware of the problem because it had impacted members of their family.

At the conclusion of the task force meeting, Representative Nelson asked KWOA Chairman Corum to coordinate efforts to develop legislation to address the problems presented to the Task Force that Representative Nelson could introduce.

On December 4, Corum chaired a working group to look at potential legislation on all five of the issues. Attendees included people from the Kentucky Woodland Owners’ Association, the State Department of Forestry, the University of Kentucky, the Kentucky Forest Industries Association, the Legislative Research Commission, and Mrs. Cornett.

Because of time constraints, none of the issues could be fully explored that day. As a result, a follow-up meeting with a smaller group took place on the December 18 to look at timber theft specifically. Besides discussion of general approaches to the legislation, the group went through the bill presented last session and discussed ways to improve it. A number of revisions were proposed which will be incorporated into last session’s bill and sent out for comment.

The work on timber theft by the legislative task force coincides with an effort by the Letcher County Grand Jury to strengthen laws on timber. The grand jury recently came out with a report recommending new legislation on timber theft, and citing seven recommendations for inclusion in such legislation.

Besides the timber theft issue, the task force also heard testimony on forest health, competitive disadvantages for Kentucky wood as compared to other states (including property tax disparities which foster that disadvantage), the problem of wildfires and arson, and the limited market for the abundant low-grade trees in Kentucky.

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