Timber Theft in the Pine Curtain of East Texas
East Texas has often been called the Pine Curtain, named for its distinct cultural, geographic and ecological areas and, yes, for the high density of pine trees in the region. The Pine Curtain is located east of Dallas and north of I-45.
The early isolation of the region and its links to the Deep South have resulted in its well-known pine woods being described as a ‘curtain’ that demarcates a certain cultural enclave or bubble that distinguishes East Texas from the rest of the state. Since most of the east Texas region consists of piney woods eco-region, sometimes East Texas can be reduced to only the Piney Woods. As the curtain moves towards central Texas, the forests become sparser and eventually spills into open plains. Former residents describe leaving behind the ‘Pine Curtain’ as a form of escape.
For more than a century the logging industry has staked its claim on the East Texas Pine Curtain. On the surface, timber theft sounds like a made-up problem, especially in an area that abounds in common pine trees. But there is money in timber and that means there is a potential for thieves.
Recently, I’ve focused on pointing out issues around the theft of ancient trees and specialty hardwoods. These are targets to thieves because one log can bring several thousand dollars — a tidy, quick profit for relatively simple work with little risk of detection.
This month I would like to give equal billing to plain old pine trees that are also attractive to thieves. This is especially an issue when there is a vast stretch of pine trees and it is easy for thieves to work unnoticed for extended periods of time. The vast area of the Pine Curtain in East Texas is a great example.
There are several ways these pine thieves work. I give three examples below and also offer some tips on how to avoid the theft in the first place.
There are a variety of ways timber can be stolen.
Some take advantage of absentee landowners who may be absent for months or even years. Timber thieves may only harvest in the center of the property so everything looks normal from the road or they may harvest one tract and just “happen” to cross over to another while they are there. Although boundary crossing may not always be intentional or malicious, it is still theft. To protect themselves, landowners should have their property boundary lines clearly marked and visible. It avoids accidental crossings and it strengthens legal cases if prosecution becomes necessary.
The Texas Farm Bureau reported the story of Michaelene Baker. She raised cattle and horses on the same land for more than 75 years. One day she received a letter from a self-proclaimed timber broker who claimed he could sell her timber and so they worked out a contract.
They started cutting and Michaelene was to be paid weekly as they progressed, but no money came in. Attempts to get the money she was owed, she only experienced 45 days of stalling, and excuses and continued cutting. Then she decided to contact the Texas Forest Service. She was fortunate in one way. The next day she got a check.
At the same time, she had signed a contract where she would be paid $1,600 for good logs and $600 for pulpwood. In the end, they took only one load of logs and the rest was pulpwood…or so they reported. Ultimately, they had lied about what they harvested and cut more than they claimed.
For Dennis Cochran, an investigator with the Texas A&M Forest Service, timber sales is a money-maker for a lot of industries, but especially for loggers. In Cochran’s career, he has become convinced that timber theft comes in all shapes and sizes. Payoffs can range from a few thousand dollars to a few $100,000 or more.
With that kind of potential reward, thieves have found a variety of ways to get a piece of the action.
Cutting over property lines and stealing from absentee landowners are the most common strategies and the simplest. Some thieves get more sophisticated like the case of Michaelene Baker, by entering into a legal contract and then not reporting all the timber they have harvested off the property. She had 240 acres of untouched timber. She fell for the well written letters and contracts, the two professionally dressed men, driving fancy vehicles and the lure of some quick cash with little effort on her part.
In Texas, the natural resource code is designed to stop timber theft. “Before purchasing or accepting delivery of any trees, timber logs, pulpwood, or in-woods chips, a seller shall provide, and a purchaser shall require a bill of sale for the trees, timber, logs, pulpwood, or in-woods chips executed by the seller.” When the product gets to the sawmill, everything is done to ensure the logger is being honest. These trip tickets specify key information that will validate that the transaction is legitimate from the start.
In summary: Three basic ways timber is stolen and how to prevent it from happening to you
1. Harvesting Directly on Your Property
- Visit your property frequently. Your own neglect can encourage thieves. Inspections will also catch insect and disease problems early and head off line encroachment.
- Maintain and “refresh” proper boundary markings. It is much easier to do this when property lines are still visible. Always freshen up your lines when harvesting is occurring on adjacent property.
- Cultivate good neighbors and encourage good lease-holders to keep an eye open. Encourage them to report any cutting on your land immediately.
- Utilize trail/deer cameras on your property that can record suspicious activity or individuals.
- Never be afraid to report suspicious activity to law-enforcement.
2. Pretending to Be a Buyer (Look the part and then offer absurdly low prices for timber knowing that the landowner has no idea of the value)
- Always get a second opinion of values and volumes, especially where large acreage is involved. You might want to hire a forestry consultant or buy a timber inventory from a third party.
- Never sign a contract without getting references of all timber buyers and inquire about your buyer at your local or state forester’s office.
- Avoid the temptation to make a “quick sell” to a friendly buyer. Take time to think about it. Do not feel pressured to make a quick decision.
3. Making a Lump Sum Sale – “Lump sum” sales or “unit” sales leaves the opportunity for a logger or trucker to misreport the types and volumes of trees cut
- No timber should leave the loading site on “pay-as-cut” sales unless the load has been recorded by date, species, time and destination. Reputable loggers have these records.
- All records must be available for inspection and collected at the end of each week. These records should then be compared to scale tickets for reconciliation.
- You or your forestry consultant needs to be on-site and visible at random times during the week.
“Timber Theft on the Rise in East Texas,” by Matt Thibodeaux, Posted from Lufkin, Texas (KETK) on Sep 20, 2019, at
“Timber Theft a Growing concern for East Texas,” by Jennifer Dorsett, Texas Farm Bureau at
Natural Resources Code, Title 6. Timber. Chapter 151. Provisions Generally Applicable, Subchapter A. Bill of Sale for Purchase of Trees and Timber.