Outdoors: Conviction lays the lumber to state forest timber thief

This bandit got caught, but sadly, many of the felons of his ilk get away with their larceny.

By Matt Markey / The Blade
Mon, 02 Dec 2019 15:50:26 GMT

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LONDONDERRY, Ohio — Without knowing it, you’ve been robbed. Citizens of Ohio, from Pioneer in the northwest to Ravenswood in the southeast, to Kellogsville in the northeast down to Delhi in the southwest, a few treasures in your ownership have been stolen.

A thief came, possibly under the cover of darkness, or more likely under the cover of remoteness, and stole something you might not have known that was yours. This bandit got caught, but sadly, many of the felons of his ilk get away with their larceny.

Robert Silcott, a resident of this unincorporated Ross County community anchored in Ohio’s forested quadrant south of Columbus, was recently convicted for stealing timber from a couple of state forests. His booty — black walnut and white oak trees whose lumber and veneer are prized for the unique beauty of their grain patterns, their density and durability, and the museum-quality furniture they can bring to life in the hands of a skilled craftsman.

These slow-growing hardwoods are extremely valuable. Bruce Thompson, author of “Black Walnut For Profit,” estimates that single mature black walnut trees can be worth as much as $20,000, while a stand of mature trees can be valued at $100,000 an acre. The trees Silcott cut down and stole were likely 80-100 years old, and while not quite as valuable as black walnuts, the white oaks command a premium price, as well.

Silcott’s arrest and eventual guilty pleas to two counts of theft, two counts of vandalism, and one count of criminal mischief came about as the result of an investigation by Ohio Department of Natural Resources officers acting on a tip.

The ODNR officers were alerted to thefts of standing timber at Tar Hollow State Forest in December of 2018, and over the course of the following months, additional thefts were discovered in Scioto Trail State Forest and on private properties in Ross County.

Each case had the telltale indiscriminate butchering of these giants of the forest — only the thicker, lower section of the 10 felled trees was taken. By analyzing the stumps, foresters from the ODNR and natural resource officers were able to formulate an accurate description of the missing logs, narrow down the potential locations where the thief or thieves sold the stolen trees, and then search for documentation of any transactions involving the trees.

The approximate value of the black walnut and oak trees was estimated at around $4,000. Silcott was sentenced to 16 months in jail in Ross County Court and ordered to pay $4,864 in restitution. During the investigation, ODNR officers also seized the equipment Silcott used to commit these crimes, including chainsaws, trailers, and winching equipment. The 42-year-old Silcott, who also hit several stands of mature trees on private properties, is incarcerated at the Pickaway Correctional Institution.

Dan Balser, chief of the ODNR’s Division of Forestry, said that historically, timber thefts often came about as the result of someone inadvertently crossing an unmarked property line and taking trees, or cases where individuals took advantage of an absentee landowner who was not present to monitor activity on their property. The most common scenario has changed, however.

“What we've noticed in recent years is the theft of one or two of the most valuable trees that are in remote areas, but relatively easy to get to from a road,” Balser said. “These thieves are looking for a quick payday.”

He said that as the Division of Forestry works to promote the wise use and sustainable management of Ohio’s public and private woodlands, it is important for citizens to report any suspected timber thefts or unusual activity in state forests to local authorities, or on the state TIP hotline 1-800-POACHER (762-2437). Balser added that stolen timber is usually sold at sawmills in relatively close proximity to the site where the thefts took place.

“These trees represented long-term investments the citizens have made in sustainable forest conservation and wildlife habitat,” Balser said. “State Forests exist for the public good and should not be exploited by criminals. I hope this conviction will deter future timber theft in any of Ohio’s forests.”