Market drop leads to timber theft drop, but landowners urged to stay vigilant

Previous high prices led to aggressive activity

RHINELANDER, Wis. -- One positive development to recent pricing pressure for woodland owners is a drop off in thefts of white birch trees off public and private lands around Wisconsin.

Officials in late 2017 were seeing a growing trend of people cutting down dense stands of young white birch trees (or poles) and using basic tools such as a chainsaw, dragging sometimes thousands of trees to a trailer and selling them into the market, said Capt. Dave Zebro, a Wisconsin DNR law enforcement warden.

"That market really blew up here 2 to 3 years ago," Zebro said. "We had all kinds of crazy things going on."

Zebro said birch wood, which is popular for decorative uses, would yield up to $6 per tree, and thieves would cut down hundreds in an afternoon.

"There wasn't a lot of expense in equipment to get something going. They could make a pretty big profit in an afternoon," said Zebro, who added that the majority of the thefts were occurring in pockets in the northwest part of the state.

In the northwest, prices of birch stumpage dropped considerably, according to Forest Data Network’s pricing data. Data shows white birch sawlogs rose to more than $400 per thousand board feet (MBF) in 2016 data for private and public land harvests, and dropped to $150/MBF in 2018 data. Pulpwood saw similar percentage drops. To see some of the latest regional pricing for birch and other species, check out Forest Data Network's pricing reports here:

In recent months, the DNR has seen a recent uptick in aspen trees being illegally harvested, but there's been a drop off in birch thefts in public, state and county, and private forests. There were over 1,000 birch trees stolen in Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in one incident.

People caught stealing trees can face both criminal and civil penalties. One recent case near Park Falls will lead to misdemeanor charges and also civil forfeitures of "double stumpage" where the convicted will have to pay back two times what the wood is worth. Zebro said there was an instance where one man was given jail time.

Private landowners should be diligent in monitoring their forests, especially if they have stands of aspen and birch that are easily accessible.

"They're just targeting where the wood is, and they're definitely not worried about the property line issue," Zebro said, describing thefts indiscriminately across private and public lands. Mills have also tried to be helpful and in some cases DNR officials have been able to quickly backtrack to determine where the illegal harvest happened and matched the cut lines.

An important part is notification and awareness of the thefts. The DNR has a tip line that forestowners can use to report unexpected harvesting of trees or suspicious vehicles on their land - 800-TIP-WDNR or 800-847-9367.

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