Walnut veneer prices at peak levels may be driving increase in theft of walnut trees in southern Wisconsin, experts say; forester estimates value of pristine 16 ft. veneer log with 26 in. diameter at up to US$3,000

MADISON, Wisconsin , April 29, 2014 () – Unscrupulous loggers looking to make a quick profit are cutting down valuable walnut trees without permission on private property in rural areas of southern Wisconsin, a law enforcement official said.

Landowners confronted loggers after they cut down as many as 20 walnut trees without permission on their property in the Brodhead area earlier this month, Rock County Sheriff Robert Spoden said.

Those loggers, as well as others who have been confronted in the area cutting down walnuts and oaks, claimed they thought they were cutting down trees on land owned a neighbor who had hired them, he added.

"It's happening more and more," Spoden said. "They're coming in and cutting down trees on the boundaries of property. The owners, by the time they realize it, are out of luck."

Brian Knudson, of rural Brodhead, was one of the landowners who confronted the loggers. He said the loggers offered to give him $1,000 per tree to keep him from reporting the incident to law enforcement. He said the loggers cut down from 12 to 20 walnut trees without permission on property owned by him and his neighbor.

"You know it has to be a high-quality tree for them to make that kind of offer on the spot," Knudson said.

While walnuts are a healthy food choice, the lumber from walnut trees is high-quality hardwood and is in great demand around the world, especially in China. There aren't an abundance of the trees, so that drives the price even higher for the highest-quality walnut lumber, which is called veneer.

"If the market for walnut right now isn't at a record level, it's certainly at one of its peaks," said Brian Brookshire, the executive director of the American Walnut Manufacturers Association.

A pristine 16-foot veneer log with a 26-inch diameter can fetch up to $3,000, according to an article on the Iowa Department of Natural Resources website written by Gary Beyer, a district forester from Charles City, Iowa. A similarly pristine veneer log with a 22-inch diameter can earn around $1,358, and one with an 18-inch diameter can earn around $488, Beyer wrote.

Most walnut doesn't come close to commanding that high of a price, said Scott Small, owner and president of the Rockbridge Sawmill in Richland Center. "Those are extremely high prices for extremely high quality logs," he added.

Small said he was saddened to learn that some loggers were stealing walnut trees from private property. "That's an image that doesn't help our industry," he said. "There used to be a lot of that going on, but then it became harder to do it because people were watching out for it more."

Knudson said he has communicated with potential buyers for walnut on Craigslist and other places and learned there is a demand for high-quality lumber any way they can get it.

"I know they are cutting oak and walnut hot and heavy in Rock County right now," Knudson added. "So people should at least be paying attention."

A person guilty of timber theft can be fined up to $10,000 in Wisconsin, and anyone who transports, receives or conceals any forest products that were cut down illegally is liable to the owner for double the value of those products, according to state statutes.

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