NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – The State Department of Agriculture is warning the public of a recent rise in timber theft across Tennessee.

News 2’s Alex Corradetti has been investigating the uptick in this type of crime. She spoke with David Arnold, State Forester and Assistant Commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture Division of Forestry.

“A lot of people don’t know what timber theft is or even that it’s an issue. I want to start there and explain what timber theft is. It’s when somebody harvests or steals timber that’s not theirs. And it’s illegal to do that in Tennessee. There are laws on the books,” said Arnold.

Arnold said the penalty for stealing timber can be costly.

“If somebody inadvertently does it, for example, if they have a timber harvest, and they accidently cross a boundary line, the civil penalty for that is twice the value of the timber. But, if they do it on purpose, and it can be proven that they did it on purpose, the civil penalty is three times the value of the timber,” explained Arnold.

Arnold said there are some pretty hot timber markets at the moment.

“There’s a lot of demand for timber across all of our species in Tennessee. Of course, we are a hardwood state. We are known for oaks, hickories and yellow poplar. Because of that increased value in timber, anytime something has increased value, you know, the light is shined on that as something that thieves can take advantage of,” said Arnold.

Arnold said white oak is extremely valuable right now.

“The demand for Tennessee whiskey and Kentucky bourbon is going out the roof right now. And to produce both of those products, it has to be aged in a white oak barrel. To meet that demand, to make those barrels, white oak timber right now has an extremely high value. That is a species these rascals are honing in on and taking advantage of other folks,” Arnold said.

Thieves are targeting folks like Chris Rankin in Marion County, Tennessee. Rankin is a property foreman for RGGS Land & Minerals and has been with the company for 17 years.

“We’re a land company here in Tennessee about 20 plus thousand acres. I manage it for timber and mountain stone,” said Rankin.

Rankin noticed the number one prime oaks were disappearing. Most of them were relatively close to a dirt road or in some cases, paved county roads.

“With further research, I found they were going down to the mills, and they were paying really good money for these white oak logs,” said Rankin.

It can be a challenge for any landowner to survey all of their property at any given time. Rankin said it pays to have community relationships.

“It’s hard to be everywhere. I grew up in this area. I’ve been here my whole life. I’ve had a lot of friends who worked for the Highway Department and TDOT that would say give me a call ‘I saw a tractor with a log going down 108’,” said Rankin.

Rankin recalled one case in which he helped track the criminals down.

“These guys will come in and make noise with their chainsaw, cut the tree down, cut the butt log off, and then they’ll leave. They’ll give it a few days, and then when they come in to load they can be quiet. So, I found one of the logs they had drug out and staged ready to be loaded. So, I carved the last four digits of my cell phone number into the butt cut of that log and set up a trail camera like you would deer hunt with,” said Rankin.

He was able to catch the criminal in town with the log on his trailer. He then called the police department.

“We tracked down the folks, and we’ve had one conviction and little bit of restitution. Then I’ve been in court with them recently – the same folks,” said Rankin.

Rankin hopes the mills will take notice.

“The biggest thing that would help us is if the mills would not purchase off of the bed of a truck, you know,” Rankin pleaded. “You can tell this guy isn’t legitimate. We already had him confess he was stealing from us. So, they knew without a doubt they were buying stolen property.”

Rankin said this crime is not only devastating to the landowners but also to nature.

“We try to be a good steward to the land. When these folks come in and do what they want, it’s been hard to get something done. But, we finally got some attention to it,” said Rankin.

He has this warning to any timber thieves out there, “We’re watching out for you. We’ve got you twice, and we’ll get you again.”

Arnold said there are steps the public can take to protect themselves from this type of crime.

“Build a relationship with a forester. We at the Department of Agriculture Division of Forestry have personnel that can help landowners guide them whenever timber is stolen on next steps to take. We don’t act as a landowners agent. There are private forestry consultants that can act as a landowners agent, and they know what to do to help build a case so it can be carried to the officials to prosecute,” said Arnold.

Arnold said landowners need to make sure their property boundaries are well-marked.

“This is so they can prove which property is theirs versus somebody else’s. And, we have a lot of absentee landowners in Tennessee. Basically, that means they don’t live on the property, and it’s easy to take advantage of absentee landowners because they’re not there,” said Arnold.

Arnold said landowners should have someone set eyes on the property and to visit the property as often as they can.

“Really, getting to know a forester to help you out is probably the most proactive thing landowners can do to protect themselves,” said Arnold.

If someone becomes a victim of timber theft, then there are resources for them.

“The Department of Agriculture has Ag Crime Unit officers that can help landowners with suspected timber cases,” he added, “Then your local law enforcement is a resource landowners can turn to as well, whenever they are dealing with one of these challenging situations.”

Arnold said his department just wants to raise awareness about this type of crime right now.

“We don’t want to paint the picture that there’s a thief behind every tree out in the woods, but there is an increase, and we just want landowners to be aware and know how to get help when they need to,” said Arnold.

If you fall victim to timber theft, then you can report the crime to the Agricultural Crime Unit:

You can also view the Consulting Foresters Directory here.