These Rustlers Are Ropin' Trees

Despite Federal Reserve rate hikes, homebuilders are pretty busy lately. And so are tree poachers. Rising demand for forest products and restrictions on harvests from public lands have caused lumber prices nationally to more than double since their low during the 1991 recession. In one case in Washington state, poachers struck a dozen sites, working mostly at night with muffled chainsaws to steal cedar and other wood prized by the board-hungry building industry. They usually cut only the best parts of the trees, which officials call a "butcher job."

The problem is widespread. In Texas, the nation's No.9 wood-products prov ider, they call it timber rustling. Bruce Miles, director of the Texas Forest Service, says the agency has received about 60 timber-theft reports in the past six months, nearly twice the rate of two years ago. One landowner caught three men on his property near the Oklahoma border after they had cut down 152 pine and oak trees, worth some $2,200. They said they had made a mistake and offered to settle. In Washington state, one of the leading lumber sources, authorities are alarmed enough to use the state's organized-crime statutes against suspects accused of poaching wood from state forests.

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