Timber Theft for Backcountry Skiing

Timber Theft for Backcountry Skiing

On June 21, 2019, the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation (FPR) received a report of hearing chainsaws in the Park. A Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife Game Warden visited the area and observed an area of trees and shrubs cut on State land within a designated natural area of the Park.

The Warden investigated further and decided to visit the logger Tremonte to see if he could learn more about the situation. He spoke with Tremonte on his log landing and camp driveway.

A few days later, state officials performed a site inspection and observed fresh sawdust, as well as saplings, stems, and fresh green leaves within an area approximately 300-400 feet wide and 100-130 feet in length. They found that Tremonte had cut 839 trees on state land. 

This month I decided to go back to the basics of timber theft. But I have a twist since it is about a landowner living next to a State Park in Vermont who has decided to set up a back country ski run to compete with those offered in the Park. Unfortunately, he built part of his ski run on land owned by the State Park.

Read the full story below to learn more about the case, but also to get a glimpse into some of the issues that are involved in reaching agreement on a settlement for timber theft.

Timber Trespass at Hazen’s Notch State Park

Thomas Tremonte lives in New Hampshire but owns property in Westfield that abuts Hazen’s Notch State Park. Tremonte claimed he had been cutting trees on his own land but acknowledged that he may have cut too far. Upon further investigation, FPR foresters found evidence of previous cutting within the area and deduced that this was not a recent oversight.

On March 15, 2021, Attorney General T.J. Donovan announced that the State of Vermont filed a civil lawsuit in Orleans County Superior Court for timber trespass at Hazen’s Notch State Park.  The Complaint alleges that Thomas Tremonte crossed his adjoining property line and entered the Park area without approval with the intent of creating a backcountry skiing area. Tremonte was accused of cutting 839 trees without authorization in a designated natural area in Hazen’s Notch State Park.

Attorney General Donovan emphasized that environmental stewardship is “a proud Vermont tradition.” Cutting down trees on public land for private use is not just a violation of the law but also a violation against Vermonters and the environment, especially since this is public property, owned by the people of Vermont, and should be enjoyed by all.

The suit sought treble damages for the value of the timber damaged in the cut and also requests remediation of the affected area.

On October 19, 2023, Attorney General Charity Clark announced a $75,000 settlement to resolve claims by the State of Vermont against Thomas Tremonte for civil timber trespass and unlawful mischief on State Park Land.

Since there was little argument about the situation, the primary focus in this case was the amount of the settlement.

At the outset, the fine was larger than it might have been previously because of a new state law that assigns value to trees that measure less than an inch in diameter. By including those smaller trees, the penalty can get larger quickly.

Furthermore, during the settlement hearings, there was contention about where the property lines fell. Tremonte maintains that the boundary line should have been agreed upon before simply accepting the claim in the suit which included the State’s inventory of illegally felled trees. Once the agreed-upon lines were established at least a portion of the 839 trees were legitimately on Tremonte’s land and the fine should have been less than claimed in the settlement.

To ensure there are no misunderstandings in the future, the settlement agreement also calls on Tremonte to remove “no trespass” signs he posted on state land and thereby clarify the precise boundary between his land and the state’s.

Finally, the department took additional steps to avoid another situation like this by publishing a guide that outlines recommendations for people who are looking to create legal backcountry ski areas. 

Reminders and Lessons Learned

This case serves as a reminder that permission is required to cut any tree or shrub owned by others, including public lands managed by the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation. Unapproved damage to trees of another is unlawful in Vermont. Know the laws in your state. Generally, it makes no difference if the cutting is on public or private land. If in doubt, call before you cut. 

Know the boundaries before cutting. Claiming that you didn’t know the boundaries or that you have mistakenly crossed the boundaries is not an excuse.

This case also highlights the importance of neighbors and other onlookers for a successful timber protection plan. One of the most important detection strategies is to know those who live near remote areas of your land and make sure they know you. You want ever-present eyes and ears that not only notice unusual forest activity, but also are willing to get involved and report what they see to the property owner. Even if it turns out that the sited cutting is authorized, public and private landowners will be grateful that there are a second pair of eyes watching out for their interests or the interests of current and future generations.

Finally, designated public lands like state forests and state parks provide backcountry recreation and important natural habitat. That weighs heavily if caught and the case goes to court. In the case of Hazen’s Notch State Park, part of the natural area cut by Tremonte included cliffs of serpentine rock that support rare plant species and have been the home of peregrine falcons in recent years. In any case, all public Parks and Forests have reasons for their preservation and should be protected from private citizens who attempt to take it for personal use. Public and court sentiment will likely affect settlement.