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If a tree falls in a forest, is it a crime?

Downed timber in Alabama.

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: Here's a twist on that old philosophical question about the tree and the forest. If a tree does fall in a forest, is it a crime? I ask because timber theft is on the rise, as are attempts by state governments to stop it. In Alabama, some new proposed regulations to protect the state's $15 billion timber industry are causing a dust-up.

From WBHM in Birmingham, Tanya Ott reports.


Tanya Ott: If your image of timber thieves includes bumbling bandits backing up a pick-up truck to the edge of a forest, forget it. Alabama's state forester, Linda Casey, says these are highly skilled professionals who sneak their big cutting machines onto remote properties or prey on small landowners. They get permission to cut the trees, but don't pay up.

Linda Casey: Most landowners, they may only harvest timber off their property one time. They may be holding that sale to pay for their kid's college education, to pay for medical bills.

There are hundreds of thousands of small timber plots in Alabama. This year thieves took more than a half-million dollars worth of trees. The Alabama Forestry Commission wants to impose stiffer penalties for things like trespassing. Currently, if a logger accidentally cuts trees on someone else's land, he faces civil penalties including fines. The new law would make trespass a misdemeanor, even if the logger doesn't cut any trees.

Chris Isaacson is with the Alabama Forestry Association, a trade group that opposes the proposal.

Chris Isaacson: Boundary lines are marked either by fences. It may be painted boundary lines; it could be marked just by flagging. Sometimes those boundaries may not have been marked for a number of years prior to someone coming in there.

Thick brush may also obscure the markings, according to professionals like Tom Thompson. He's a forest resource manager with building materials company Louisiana Pacific. I met him on a timber tract just south of Birmingham.

Tom Thompson: We have parked on this landowners' property without their permission on this site. So here's an unintended consequence. Now I'm subject to a misdemeanor fine for parking on the neighbor's property without their permission.

Thompson watches as a machine called a skidder picks up logs, strips the limbs, then drops them in a stack to be loaded onto a truck.

Logging is a multi-part process. The landowner and logger agree to a price. The logger may subcontract the cutting to one person, the hauling to another. Many deals are done on a handshake. And sometimes they go sour.

The proposed rules would require a record book that documents every step of the process, from cutting to loading to transport and delivery. Critics worry if anyone along that chain makes even a minor mistake in the record book -- even a spelling mistake -- they could be held criminally liable.

Craig Hill: We're not interested in a spelling error. That's the reason I've got spell check on my computer, currently.

Alabama Forestry Commission's Craig Hill leads a staff of eight investigators, covering the entire state.

Hill: We do not have the time or the man power to go out and physically go to everybody's job site and look at the record. We don't want to go look at the record.

But Hill says he wants the records available if there's a problem.

Back in the forest, Tom Thompson says he's concerned about timber thefts, but the proposal would penalize many for the transgressions of a few.

Thompson: We have a shared concern about protecting the public, protecting forest owners. But again, what's being proposed on the table goes way beyond the scope of that.

Loggers and landowners in other states are watching what happens here. The Alabama Forestry Commission will announce next month whether it's imposing the new rules. Observers say if it does, there will be a battle in the state House and the courthouse.

In Birmingham, I'm Tanya Ott for Marketplace.

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