Tree theft: Why an uncommon crime is on the rise in Iowa

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People stealing trees from public and private land in Iowa is an infrequent but growing occurrence, according to state conservation officers.
The crimes range considerably in their scope and sophistication, and the value of the heists can be lucrative. Some of the culprits might haul their looted timber with ramshackle trailers. Others might have full-on logging rigs.
Some of the thefts happen out in the open, such as when a company is contracted to harvest timber from a certain area but oversteps its bounds to cut down a valuable-looking tree on an adjacent property. A prime black walnut trunk can fetch upwards of $10,000.
Other thefts are conducted in the dead of night. In one recent instance, a thief was cutting trees in an area near a highway and would only operate his chainsaw when the sound of passing traffic would cover its noise.
“Timber theft was something we never used to see, and now it’s become a bigger thing,” said Craig Cutts, chief of the Iowa Department of Natural Resource’s Law Enforcement Bureau.
He said perhaps the most egregious recent offense happened in Pocahontas County last year, when someone allegedly cut more than 100 trees from a state wildlife management area. One of the trees was a bur oak with a trunk about six feet in diameter.
“That tree was a sapling when Iowa was made a state,” Cutts said. “It’s incredible somebody would cut that down.”
The DNR does not keep a reliable list of timber theft reports, but Capt. Brian Smith, who oversees the bureau’s region of southwest Iowa, estimates that the department has investigated about a dozen in the past two years.
“All across Iowa, timber theft has either been on the increase or at least it’s being recognized on a larger scale than it used to,” he said. “I believe it’s the former of the two — that it has increased — and it has been increasing for a number of years.”
The cause of that uptick is unclear. Smith speculates that a growing number of absentee landowners — those who own land but seldom step foot on it — gives potential thieves more opportunities and decreases the public surveillance of wider rural areas.
And while thieves have incentive to steal high-dollar trees worth thousands of dollars, they’re also taking low-dollar softwoods that can be made into pallets.
“They’re much, much less valuable,” Smith said, “but if you can steal it, and it’s free to begin with, a few bucks is better than nothing.”
In the case of the giant bur oak theft in northwest Iowa, the alleged culprit said he planned to build a house out of logs, according to court records.
Timber investigation leads to drug, gun charges
In October 2022, two DNR officers responded to a report that someone was illegally cutting trees from the Stoddard Wildlife Management Area near Rolfe.
While the officers were on-site, they noticed a vehicle pulling a trailer that turned off of the nearby roadway, onto a trail that led to the state property, according to court records.
The officers followed and found Jason Levant Ferguson, 41, who lives nearby. They noted the area was blanketed with vehicle trails, cut trees, branches, tree stumps and limbs. It’s illegal in Iowa to harvest trees from state land without DNR approval.
Ferguson allegedly admitted to the officers that he had been cutting down trees in the wildlife management area “that looked like they were dying.”
“Jason told (the officers) about a large tree that he had cut down, and it was so large that it took him weeks to get it out of the timber, having multiple issues including tires going flat under the extreme weight,” according to documents associated with a search warrant.
The officers asked if they could go to Ferguson’s acreage to see the large log, and he obliged, court records show. There they saw hundreds of logs piled on the property, and Ferguson allegedly admitted that most of them came from the state-owned area.
Ferguson could not be reached to comment for this article.
Another officer obtained a search warrant for the property to collect further evidence, and they seized a significant amount of logging equipment: two trailers, a chain hoist, numerous chainsaws, a winch and others.
But they also saw what they believed to be marijuana and a small-caliber rifle. Ferguson is a felon who cannot possess firearms, court records show.
That discovery led to another search warrant for drugs, and officers later found evidence that someone was manufacturing methamphetamine and growing marijuana on the property for sale. They found an unspecified “large amount” of both drugs, according to a criminal complaint, along with smaller amounts of LSD, cocaine and hallucinogenic mushrooms.
Ferguson was charged with numerous felonies for drugs and weapons, the most serious of which is punishable by up to 25 years in prison.
He was also charged with felony theft for taking trees from the wildlife management area, along with 50 counts each for timber buyer violations and prohibited destructive acts.
But the prosecution of many of those charges unraveled last month when a district court judge decided that the search warrants were improperly approved.
Magistrate Ben Meyer, who signed the warrants, was also certified by the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy to be a legal instructor for reserve officers of the Pocahontas Police Department and was identified by the academy as an employee of that department at the time he endorsed the warrants, according to court records.
That violated a constitutional separation of powers requirement because Meyer was a representative of both the judicial and executive branches of state government, District Court Judge Derek Johnson recently decided.
“It is this court’s finding that the search warrants in question are not valid because they were not endorsed and signed by a neutral and detached magistrate,” Johnson wrote in an Oct. 18 order.
The drug and gun charges have been dismissed, court records show, and prosecutors can’t use the evidence obtained for the tree thefts from the searches. Still, the DNR obtained evidence in its investigation that led to the search warrants — including Ferguson’s alleged admission he took the trees — and the tree-related charges are set for trial next week.
Pocahontas County Attorney Dan Feistner confirmed that his prosecution of the timber thefts will continue but declined to comment further about the case.
Difficult investigations
A review of court documents associated with timber violations shows at least one other prosecutorial misstep: a criminal charge against a Bloomfield man in 2018 was dismissed because of how it was filed in court.
The man was accused of buying timber without posting a bond with the state, which is a serious misdemeanor and punishable by up to a year in jail. But the charging officer filed it with a citation form that is most often used for traffic violations and didn’t include specific details of the alleged crime.
Citing that lack of detail, a judge dismissed the charge.
Timber buyers who agree to pay people to harvest their trees are required to set aside up to $15,000 to cover those sales if they don’t actually pay. Small-time loggers who aren’t stealing trees are occasionally cited for violating that law, DNR records show.
The state maintains a database of bonded timber buyers to help protect against improper sales and tree thefts, which can be difficult to uncover and investigate.
“In some circumstances, it’s tough,” said Smith, who oversees DNR law enforcement in southwest Iowa. “We’ve had completely legitimate bonded timber buyers logging one property, and they get across the property line not realizing it. Others might cross that line because they see that big $10,000 black walnut tree, and they think, ‘Well, what the heck? If I sneak over there and grab it, nobody will notice.’”
The DNR often relies on its staff to detect potential timber thefts from public property during routine walkthroughs. Thefts from private property are often aided by landowners and their neighbors.
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In 2020, two men stole seven walnut trees from an acreage near Central City in eastern Iowa, according to court records. They were identified with the help of surveillance video recordings from a neighboring property.
Last year, a man who had claimed he was cutting down walnut trees in rural Persia in western Iowa on behalf of the Iowa Department of Transportation was identified with the help of a suspicious neighbor who photographed the man’s truck. The man had stolen 17 trees worth about $1,000, court records show.
Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Iowa Capital Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kathie Obradovich for questions: info@iowacapitaldispatch.com. Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.

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