Georgia lags other states in its ability to track and investigate timber thefts, according to the Georgia Forestry Association, which has created a task force to explore the problem.
“Most people probably don’t even report timber theft, especially if a long period of time has gone by,” said Steve McWilliams, the nonprofit trade group’s president. “It is also very difficult to prosecute.”
With 22 million forested acres, Georgia is a leading timber producer, he said, but options are sparse for victims of theft or fraud.
“Unlike other forms of stolen items, forest products disappear,” he said. “Hours after timber is removed, it’s turned into two-by-fours or chips.”
It is difficult to determine how many cases are reported in the state each year, he said.
“That is also an issue we want to work on, maybe through the (Georgia) Sheriffs’ Association,” he said.
The Georgia Forestry Commission, a state agency, has no authority to investigate timber thefts.
“At our inaugural task force meeting last week, one of the things discussed was that we’d like for the Forestry Commission to have the same authority with theft as they do with arson,” McWilliams said.
Anecdotally, timber theft reports appear to have doubled in the state during the past four years.
The South Carolina Forestry Commission investigates and keeps records of more than 200 cases of timber theft and fraud each year and estimates losses from such crimes in the state exceed $10 million per year.
“South Carolina’s numbers are one of the things that prompted us to do this,” McWilliams said, noting that Georgia is a larger timber producer and likely has even greater numbers of theft and fraud incidents that often go unreported.
“It happens all across the
landscape, but absentee landowners are at a higher risk than those who live on or near their property,” he said. “An absentee landowner may not realize for a year, even a couple years, there has been a timber theft.”
The task force hopes to work with law enforcement, state forestry commission leaders and – eventually – the General Assembly to forge better solutions.
In the meantime, other efforts will include public education, the resumption of a dormant timber theft reward program and outreach activities.
“Basically, we want to raise the profile of the issue,” McWilliams said.
The vast majority of
timber dealers are honest, but a few crooked ones can tarnish the industry, he said.
“Woodland owners should be aware that timber buyers regularly involved in stealing timber will often attempt to buy timber outside of their normal market area where no one knows them or their reputation,” McWilliams said.