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Springfield rep introduces timber theft legislation

Bill to aimed at better prosecuting timber thieves.

State Rep. Ross McGregor wants legislation that would allow for better prosecution in timber theft crimes, but the state forestry association has concerns the bill could over-regulate the industry.

House Bill 515, introduced by McGregor last week, would require a written agreement between landowners and the timber harvester that specifically shows which trees should be cut down. It would also require a written record of timber harvested from the landowner and requires records be kept by timber harvesters to allow for transparency.

The victims of timber theft often can’t file an insurance claim on the stolen trees, unlike a household item like a television. Timber theft occurs more regularly in southeast Ohio, but has happened recently in Clark County, McGregor (R-Springfield) said.

“I just think it’s time to update the statute regarding timber theft in Ohio,” McGregor said. “Right now, it’s a very loose standard and very difficult for prosecutors to go after, even though clearly theft has occurred.”

The Ohio Forestry Association, which has more than 500 in-state members, has concerns about the legislation because what it called a “heavy-handed approach” that could cause difficulties for the industry, Executive Director John Dorka said.

“We think it can cause a burden, particularly for the folks trying to do the job the right way,” Dorka said. “It’ll add a lot of regulation.”

Approximately 330 manufacturers and more than 36,000 employees are in the timber industry in Ohio, according to the American Forest & Paper Association’s website. In 2012, Ohio’s wood and paper manufacturers shipped approximately $9.4 million worth of product and paid employees approximately $1.9 million, according to the AFPA.

The industry is key to the state’s agriculture business economy and the “vast majority” of timber harvesters are doing it properly, McGregor said. The goal is to find people who are “bad actors,” he said, and not make it overly burdensome for the people who are doing it properly.

“We’ve tried to be very conscientious of people who are in the business for the right reasons,” McGregor said.

People illegally harvesting timber are likely selling it to timber mills, McGregor said. The idea came to McGregor in 2007 after a logger was successfully prosecuted for harvesting trees without permission in Montgomery County.

“It was very unusual,” McGregor said. “Usually, prosecutors don’t go after timber theft because it’s hard to prove.”

The bill will also help recognize errors made during the harvesting process and allow for costs to be recovered by property owners. It would also create a stronger method of valuation.

If passed, county prosecutors and possibly the Ohio Attorney General’s office would enforce violations of timber theft laws. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry would also be more directly involved with officers performing timber theft investigations.

“We’ve tried to give prosecutors more tools they can use to go after these illegal timber harvesters,” McGregor said.

The legislation could keep timber from being sold by property owners or purchased by harvesters because of the additional procedures, according to the Ohio Forestry Association.

Currently, people are open to negotiate with timber harvesters similar to other industries, Dorka said. Timber sale transactions are a complicated process, and it’s unclear how many of the components of the bill will play out, Dorka said.

“It could add a burden in places, and timber may end up not being sold because the landowner wouldn’t want to go through with the additional regulation,” Dorka said. “They would forego revenue from the sale of the timber. There are cases where … it may be too difficult to comply with the regulations of the industry (for timber harvesters), so they wouldn’t buy the timber.”

Currently, 11 states, including neighboring states Pennsylvania and West Virginia, have timber theft laws or timber harvesting regulations in place.

It’s hard to gauge the severity of the problem in Ohio, Dorka said.

“How big is the problem? No one really knows that answer. There are no statistics,” Dorka said. “Everything that’s talked about in timber theft is anecdotal, and it’s based on a case here and a case here.”

The forestry association believes the problem isn’t as bad as “what might require a remedy like this,” Dorka said.

There are a few cases of timber theft in local parks, said National Trail Parks and Recreation District Director Leann Castillo. Last winter, the top of a 10-foot pine tree near the Western Avenue arch in Snyder Park was chopped off, likely for a Christmas tree, Castillo said.

If a large theft were to occur, the district would support prosecuting the responsible individuals, Castillo said. She has heard stories of trees being stolen from park districts in southeast Ohio.

“It’s important to protect the public lands, and I think that’s a good way to do it,” Castillo said.

The bill has been assigned to the Agriculture and Natural Resources committee, and sponsor testimony could be held in early May. There will likely be some changes made during the legislative process, McGregor said.

“I know that there will be people who have an interest in this, so I think we’ll probably have a full debate,” McGregor said.

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