State probing alleged theft of $425,000 in forest timber

January 18, 1994|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Staff Writer

State Department of Natural Resources officials are investigating what they say was the theft of $425,000 worth of timber from remote woodlands in Garrett State Forest in Western Maryland.

An undetermined number of oak, maple and black cherry trees were illegally harvested from a 100-acre area of the western Garrett County forest from June to September, DNR officials said. Some of the downed trees were 100 feet tall.

Lumber from such trees is typically used in making cabinets and furniture.

Pamela Andersen, an assistant Maryland attorney general, said the state was planning to file today in Garrett County Circuit Court a civil suit against Sisler Lumber Co. and Sam VanSickle, of Accident, who the state says hired the loggers.

She said the state seeks to recover the estimated value of the trees, which DNR officials said were about 90 years old. She also said the law allows the state to seek as much as treble the value of the actual damage.

The lumber company contests the state's position.

Eddie Sisler, a part owner of the Mountain Lake Park lumber company, said the harvested trees were on private property. Most were 40 or 50 years old, he said.

The state "hasn't proved anything to us yet," Mr. Sisler said. "We think we were in the right. They haven't even surveyed their own ground yet. It's one of those things that time will tell."

The state's Board of Public Works authorized $17,000 last week to hire a surveying company to establish the boundary lines. DNR officials will measure stumps and determine the extent of harvesting.

"We're sure it's state forest, but we're not definitely sure where the line is," said Steve Hamilton, forest manager for Garrett State Forest.

Mr. Hamilton said DNR officials are not seeking criminal charges against the Sisler Lumber Co. and Mr. VanSickle because "we don't think there was criminal intent."

But the DNR wants to recover the value of the timber, he said, and send a message that the state will take legal action to recover losses from illegal harvests.

Mr. Hamilton said the trees were selectively cut, not clear cut, from a remote section of the forest near Sang Run-Cranesville Road, west of the town of Sang Run.

The rugged area -- where maps show state forest land to be mixed with privately owned timberland and other acreage -- is designated for natural growth, and the DNR had no plans for logging over the next 10 years, he said.

The area where the trees were cut is not accessible by road. Mr. Hamilton said the lumber company gained access by using a utility right of way. Mr. Sisler said Mr. VanSickle owns about 700 acres next to the 8,000-acre state forest.

Mr. VanSickle could not be reached for comment.

Timber thefts in Maryland's state forests are rare, DNR officials said.

"Once in a while, we see a tree cut here and there for firewood, but something this large is very uncommon," Mr. Hamilton said. "I can't recall one of this size."

A DNR employee discovered the area where the trees had been cut in October, while doing research in the area, said Patty Manown, a DNR spokeswoman.

"It was considered a biologically diverse tract of land because of the age and variety of trees," Ms. Manown said.

Mr. Hamilton said forest officials annually seek bids for three or four timber cuts a year. About 150 acres are cut annually in Garrett and Potomac state forests, sections of which are scattered throughout the county, he said.

Larry Maxim, manager of Savage River State Forest in Garrett County, said the state is still negotiating with those who cut about 35 acres of trees in that forest about four years ago. He said about 630 trees, valued at $34,000, were illegally harvested then.

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