Northwest on trail of timber thieves

Peddling of stolen firewood has become big business in the Pacific Northwest. The US Forest Service says, for instance, that firewood taken illegally from national forests in Oregon and Washington has sold for as high as $230 a cord in Los Angeles.

Rising prices for heating oil and electricity have greatly increased the demand for firewood, which is used today in stoves as well as in fireplaces. And as the demand has grown, so has the practice of stealing and selling national forest wood.

So unconcerned have firewood thieves become, according to a Forest Service spokesman, that they have been known to advertise the firewood for sale. As many as 290 firewood ads have been noted in Oregon around the same time, despite the fact that in the Mt. Hood National Forest, for example, there are only some half dozen cutting contractors for commercial firewood.

Some idea of the extent of this crime of firewood theft is to be gained from Forest Service records. In 1980, 150,000 Forest Service permits were issued for legal firewood cutting in Oregon and Washington national forests. Each permit authorized cutting of 10 cords of wood, or a total of 1.5 million cords. At the Forest Service's valuation of $65 a cord, the legally cut firewood has a value of $97.5 million.

But Jay Goss, a special agent for the Forest Service, says the amount of firewood cut legally in the national forests of the Northwest is not much more than a drop in the bucket compared with the value of stolen firewood, which he said "amounts to many millions of dollars."

Firewood thieves not only cut down standing trees, but also take logs ready for legal delivery to mills and cause other widespread damage, thereby adding to the dollar losses of the federal government and private timber operators.

Nor is the problem simply one for the Northwest and the federal government. Timber companies such as Willamette Industries or Weyerhaeuser are also victims and the problem exists, according to Mr. Goss, wherever there is a national forest or a private timber operator.

In Oregon, the Forest Service and the private timber industry are strongly backing proposed state legislation that would make highway movement and the sale of stolen firewood more hazardous for the thieves.

The Oregon Legislature has before it a bill to prohibit "transport of minor forest products without permit or bill of sale indicating title" and which also "specifies content of permit or bill of sale."

The proposed law also provides for a fine of up to $250 and imprisonment for 30 days, or both.

The committee membership includes representatives not only of timber companies and the Forest Service, but also of the Oregon Small Woodlands Association, Oregon Department of Forestry, Oregon State Police, the Office of the Oregon Attorney General and the Sheriff's Department of Lane County.

Goss noted that the Forest Service has 27 special agents assigned to Washington and Oregon to fight what he called "a huge problem."

The growing theft of firewood, Goss suggests, may be a shift away from other crimes. But whatever the reason, an active interest is being taken in the problem by such other agencies as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Internal Revenue Service.

He also said Forest Service cutting permits allow takin g of only what is called "dead and down" timber --trees that have fallen of natural causes such as wind.

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