Can't see the forest for the clear-cutting

by Carol Countryman

Tool, Texas

When Morgan Herron bought the 15 acres adjoining his 50-acre homesite east of Tyler in rural Smith County, Texas, he was attracted by the rare chiquepen trees - a relative of the chestnut which provides a small, very sweet-tasting nut -and the abundance of pine trees that forested the land.

"I bought that land specifically for the timber on it," said Herron. "Not because I wanted to harvest it, but because I wanted to preserve it. Plus, the chiquepen trees are so rare that there just aren't any found in Northeast Texas, other than these."

So you can imagine his shock when he returned home one afternoon from a trip to Louisiana to find his land had been clear-cut, all 15 acres.

Daniel Duncum, a district forester with the Texas Forest Service, wasn't shocked, or even stunned. Fact is, according Duncum, the timber industry has long been pulling scams on unsuspecting landowners, waiting until no one was watching, then trespassing on private property and stealing the trees. "Timber prices have gone up so much in recent years and made it that much more valuable," Duncum said. "We've seen a lot of these cases. What we're finding now is that it is outright theft - even when the boundaries of a tract of land are well marked, these companies will ignore it and come right onto the property and cut."

Herron's incident began two weeks prior to the clear-cutting of his property when he noticed a timber crew cutting trees on the 100-acre tract next to his. "I saw them over on that property and immediately went over to show them my property line, to tell them not to get on my property." Herron said.

"The owner of the company asked if he could buy my timber. I told him no, I wasn't interested in it. Everyone around me was selling their timber, and I think some of it should be preserved." Herron pointed out his property line to the company owner. "They even marked the property line with pink ribbons. You could see clearly where the line was," Herron said.

Nevertheless, two weeks later Herron left for Louisiana, only to return to find the timber company on his property cutting his trees. Herron said that not only did the company steal his trees, they also parked their tree skimmer on his property - which, he admits, he confiscated.

"I hot-wired it and took it up to my house, chained it to my tractor, then called the sheriff." Herron said the sheriff made him return the tree cutting machine to its owner, stating that they could arrest him for theft if he didn't. "I was so mad about this time I couldn't see straight," Herron said.

"The owner came and told me he estimated that he cut $300 worth of my pine trees. I asked him what about all those others he cut to get to them-about 75 dogwood, my chiquepens, and my oak. He said he wouldn't pay for those, though he did offer me $1,000 and asked could he take the rest of the trees on the property. I hate to say it, but it's like they were watching, just waiting for me to leave."

Daniel Duncum said that's exactly what has been happening all over East Texas. "We've seen a growing number of these cases," Duncum said. "They target absentee landowners and elderly people in particularly." And some of the cases are particularly blatant. "It seems there are just a whole lot of companies that are doing this," Duncum said. "Some will buy the timber legitimately, but with the idea of going after the adjoining tract of land because it has good timber on it. But in the last six to eight months, we've seen a number of cases where the companies use bogus deeds and outright lies to steal the timber."

Charlie Baker, a detective with the Smith County Sheriff's Department said that he is currently investigating a number of these cases. "Unfortunately, we have to prove intent in these types of cases," Baker said, adding that sometimes that is difficult to do. "I tell the victims that I can't make a case unless I can prove that they [timber company] intentionally knew that they didn't have any right to be there or any right to cut those trees."

But oftentimes, after the damage is done and the trees are gone, the cutter will simply go to the landowner, hat-in-hand, in an apologetic stance, and ask since he's already cut them, could he go ahead and take the trees and pay the landowners for it. "Usually the landowner will do that because the trees are no longer of any value to them." Baker said.

Baker said he is currently working a case in which the land was marked and fenced, but the timber company drove over the fence and cut seven acres of trees. "The landowners were elderly folks who heard the chain saws and called their son to go check on it," Baker said. "By the time they got there, the land had been butchered. The sons told them to quit, get off property. Then the guys asked if they could take the trees-seeing as how the damage was done- and said they would pay."

The damage, however, was in excess of $40,000, according to the forest service, and the company is refusing to pay that great an amount. Duncum said the Texas Attorney General's office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are currently looking into these cases.

"It's like being raped," Herron said. "After the fact, there's nothing you can do about it."

The property rights movement embraced by conservative politicians such as Gov. George W. Bush and Agriculture Commissioner Rick Perry only seems to come into play when it's a question of state or federal agencies trying to tell industries or land speculators what they can do with their property. It has nothing-and never did have anything-to do with property rights of ordinary homesteaders.

Herron also plans to file a lawsuit to recover damages-if the tort reformers haven't taken away that avenue of relief.

(For Texans who find themselves in Morgan Herron's situation, report the tree theft immediately to the Texas Forest Service Tree Theft Hotline at 1-800-364-3470.)

Carol Countryman is a freelance writer in Tool, Texas.

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