LIBERTY COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) — The Texas forest and logging industry is growing strong. In 2021, the forest sector had an economic impact of $41.6 billion and supported over 170,000 jobs. Further, the forest-based industry was one of the top ten manufacturing sectors in the state, and timber ranked seventh among Texas’ agricultural commodities, according to Texas A&M forest service.
People have tried to benefit from that success through timber theft – this could be the literal theft of trees from someone’s property without the landowner’s consent, or breaking a contract by not paying a full purchase price.
The latter happened recently in 2019 when three men were convicted of timber theft for conspiring to steal timber from an employer. The men were hired by a company to haul wood from the producer to a wood mill. They falsified documents in order to receive the money from the transaction and cut out their employer.
“So they were able to circumvent their legitimate rightful owner of that wood by selling under fraudulent information,” said Josh Mizrany, Investigator with Texas A&M Forest Service Law Enforcement Department.
All three men were indicted and pleaded guilty. The court ordered them to pay fines of varying amounts. After pleading guilty to a second-degree felony charge, one of the convicted men was ordered to pay a $5,000 fine and $102,776 in restitution.
Laws on timber theft have been on the books for the last few decades, but Rob Hughes, Executive Director of the Texas Forestry Association, said he is currently writing new legislation to modernize and strengthen them. He said the way the business is conducted has changed so the laws need to as well.
“(The way they are written now) has given some folks the opportunity to sneak around the loopholes that we have in our laws. And so we’re just looking to kind of fortify what’s already on the book,” Hughes said.
Hughes thinks that if the laws are fortified, they will discourage bad actors from trying to defraud folks in this booming industry.
He said the new legislation will require workers to document in more detail and record more accurate information on the bill of sale. Hughes also wants there to be a penalty for those who do not abide by these rules.
“A few (people) have figured out how to sidestep (laws) on the contract level. And so we’re just strengthening what’s already there.”