As timber prices rise, so do tree thefts

New York's $10 fine called no deterrent

September 12, 2000|By Winnie Hu | Winnie Hu,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. - State officials, environmentalists and others have renewed their calls for heavier penalties and other measures to stop timber theft.

For those without moral qualms, tree theft has to be one of the last remaining bargains in New York state: Chop down a tree worth hundreds, even thousands, of dollars and - if caught - pay a paltry $10 fine.

Since 1909, that has been the minimum penalty for each tree taken illegally from pristine state forests in the Adirondacks and the Catskills, even though law enforcement officials can ask for up to three times the estimated value of those trees. But in many cases, these officials say, tree rustlers escape without paying anything at all because it is difficult to catch them and the $10 penalty poses little, if any, deterrent.

"A lot of people don't speed on state roads because they don't want to get hit with a heavy fine," said Judith Enck, an adviser for state Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer, whose office prosecutes a half-dozen cases of timber theft a year from public and private lands. "This is the equivalent of getting hit with a 7 cents fine if you're caught speeding."

In recent years, the Democratic-led Assembly has passed several bills that included stiffer penalties for stealing timber from protected state forest land, but the Republican-led Senate and the timber industry have opposed those bills because of other provisions in them.

"We don't have a problem with the increase," said Thomas Bergin, a spokesman for Sen. Ronald B. Stafford, a Republican from Plattsburgh who has introduced a bill that would increase the penalty to $350 per tree. "If it was simply a matter of dealing with timber theft, we'd have a bill today. Unfortunately, the Assembly attaches other items to it that are, at best, only peripherally related."

Although no one knows for sure how often trees are filched from public land, state officials and environmentalists say that it has become a growing problem as the market value for hardwoods such as black cherry and chestnut has risen to $1,000 or more per tree.

Environmentalists have warned that the damage to forests and wildlife habitats in the Adirondacks and Catskills goes far beyond money.

"In the course of stealing five or 10 trees, they've damaged 30 trees," said John F. Sheehan, a spokesman for the Adirondack Council, an advocacy and protection group. "Yet, with five or 10 trees, you barely have a $100 fine. It's like spitting on the sidewalk."

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