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Wide-swathed crime; Timber theft -- by pros

* In North Carolina, a landowner driving through a section of his timberland notices a stump where a tree should have been. A closer look turns up other fresh stumps.

* On a Monday morning in Oregon, a logging crew returns to work to haul logs to the mill. But the 8,000 board feet of wood they left Friday night is gone; only piles of sawdust remain. The crew chief figures the timber, worth $8,000 to

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* The National Park Service regularly reports pine trees felled for firewood on the Cape Cod National Seashore and the theft of walnut and cedar from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Timber theft is not a new crime. Yet private landowners and overseers of public lands have watched a steady increase in the incidence of tree rustling since the late 1970s.

Timber theft is viewed by these foresters as an economic problem stemming from the energy crisis.

After the Arab oil embargo of the mid-1970s, higher costs of fossil fuels created new interest in wood-burning devices for home heating. A seller's market for firewood resulted when demand was high but available supplies were low. As wood products increased in value, so did the interest of timber thieves, both amateurs and professionals.

''People began using wood to heat their homes without considering the source and cost of firewood,'' an Alabama forest ranger says. ''They see a stand of trees on the side of the road and decide to help themselves to some wood rather than buying it from the guy selling it on the street corner.''

A woods security officer in Georgia concurs. ''Some people think anything in the forest is free for the taking,'' he says. ''They don't stop to think that they are stealing.''

While tree rustling by ''amateurs'' accounts for a share of timber losses each year, the professional timber thief is the forest creature most timbermen are battling.

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''We are seeing increasing incidents of professional thievery,'' reports M. R. Dick, director of forest management for the Washington (State) Forest Protection Association. ''The typical method is to use a large truck, chain saws with specially equipped mufflers, and several people to load the truck quickly.''

While statistics on urban theft have been kept for years, officials are just beginning to compile numbers for forest violations. Only expert guesses and limited surveys are available to judge the extent of the problem.

A small-scale survey, for example, was conducted in Oregon, one of the states hardest hit in recent years by professional timber thieves.

In 1981, the National Forest Service kept records on a 10-square-mile area of public land in southern Oregon. At the end of the six-month survey, foresters concluded that 200 cords of firewood were removed illegally from the area each week. (A cord is slightly more than a pickup truck can carry when fully loaded.)

Based on an average of $60 a cord for the firewood on the open market, it is figured that $12,000 worth of timber was taken from that area each week. In other areas the cost of firewood is much higher.

Such substantial losses have forced action by landowners and lawmakers to protect property against timber theft. In late 1981, the Oregon Legislature passed a stringent firewood-removal law which requires a written permit from the landowner while wood is being cut or transported.

The Oregon law carries both misdemeanor and felony charges, with fines and imprisonment mandated for violators.

In some cases, security patrols have been increased. The Washington Forest Protection Association has activated a ''forest security program'' which uses woods deputies to patrol isolated forest lands. Moreover, the program is concerned with educating the public about the timber-theft problem.

The education of wood cutters covers more than simply pointing out which trees to cut and where. Instead, it is a process in which individuals discover that timber theft is not a victimless crime.

Timber theft means a loss of profit to the landowner, who could sell the timber. It also means a loss of tax revenue to counties and states - revenues which in some jurisdictions fund public schools and road construction. Further, timber theft means destruction of the land that is worked by the thieves.

Topsoil is disturbed and left open for erosion, debris is scattered throughout the forest, and trees left behind are usually damaged.

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