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Investigators lacked the authority, tools to properly investigate thefts, says commisioner

Timber theft bill provides relief for state's landowners

The Legislature is doing what it can to provide relief for landowners who have been victims of timber theft, a common problem in the state that has resulted in the loss of money and/or land value.

House Bill 1148, which has passed the House and Senate, includes provisions that protect landowners’ interests. The bill would allow timber theft investigations to be conducted in a more efficient manner, require timely payment to landowners and mandate restitution in all convicted cases. At press time, legislators anticipated Gov. Haley Barbour signing the bill into law by the end of April.

“Provisions in HB 1148 will immediately begin to deter timber theft crimes in Mississippi,” said Mississippi Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce Lester Spell. “In the past, many cases have resulted in substantial losses for both small and large landowners. I commend the leadership in the Senate and House Forestry Committees. Once signed into law, greater protection and insurance will be provided to Mississippians.”

The bill was authored by Rep. Bobby Moody (D-Louisville), chairman of the newly formed House Forestry Committee. In January, House Speaker Billy McCoy named the 21-year House veteran, who represents Winston County, to the committee, a spin-off of the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee.

“Dr. Spell brought to my attention that a lot of timber theft was reported to his office, but investigators really didn`t have the authority or the tools they needed to properly investigate timber theft cases,” said Moody. “The Mississippi Agricultural and Livestock Theft Bureau within the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce has a successful track record, and we felt like if we gave the investigators the opportunity, they would do a good job.”

Within the last decade, timber has become one of the state`s most valuable crops, with more than $1 billion worth of forest products harvested annually from Mississippi`s forestlands, which cover nearly two-thirds of the state.

“We want to do everything we can to assist landowners in making sure that that they are properly compensated when someone removes timber unauthorized,” said Moody.

Sen. Billy Harvey (D-Prentiss), chairman of the Senate Forestry Committee, said laws have been in place for several years covering agricultural theft.

“We just needed to put in some language that would include forestry,” said Harvey, who introduced a similar bill on the Senate side. “This bill is something we’ve needed for a good long while, and I don`t know why we haven`t already done this. It doesn`t cost us any more money. Also, we’ve been pushing for a forestry committee in the House for a good long while and I was glad to see it happen. I let Bobby have that bill because he`s the best person they could’ve given that chairmanship to. He`s been there a long time, knows forestry and knows what to do.”

The bill would also allow investigators to determine if timber theft was the result of a mistake, said Harvey.

“People usually won`t go out and just steal timber,” he said. “They do sometimes make mistakes and cross property lines. But there`s so much going on in forestry nowadays that we have to tie it down.”

Joey Gonce, director of the Mississippi Agricultural and Livestock Theft Bureau, said being able to expand its duties to include the enforcement of timber theft laws would help investigators better enforce the laws.

“In some people`s eyes, a lot of timber thefts would be considered small, but it can add up to a lot of money even with a small amount of timber,” he said. “When timber is stolen, often times it`s not feasible to employ an attorney to try to recover losses. Landowners have to weigh the loss value versus the cost of attorney fees. I appreciate the Mississippi Forestry Association and Bruce Alt for working with us. The combined effort of their membership and the legislature is the reason this bill got passed.”

Bruce Alt, executive vice president of the Mississippi Forestry Association, said he was very pleased the association and the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce worked together to draft and pass new legislation “that will strengthen legal protection for Mississippi`s timberland owners, enhance the credibility and reputation of professional wood fiber suppliers, and make it a criminal offense when Mississippi timberland owners are cheated out of the value of their timber.”

“Thanks to the Mississippi Legislature and Gov. Barbour, these changes will be very beneficial to both timber buyers and sellers, and our entire forestry community,” said Alt.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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