Good boundaries make good neighbors

Published 9:14 am Wednesday, January 23, 2013

by Neil Clark
Southampton County Extension Agent

Among one of the more difficult calls that foresters get is “someone has stolen my timber — what do I do?”

Aggravated to begin with, they usually are not too crazy about the answer. However, the old ounce of prevention is worth a pound of medicine adage really applies here.

The first thing that I would like to make clear is that the vast majority of the cases of timber theft are completely unintentional, and loggers often get a bad rap for someone else’s mistake. How does this happen?

For the most part this happens because forested property boundaries are typically quite obscure, particularly among large properties, which are where most timber harvests are performed. In the urban setting, properties often change ownership frequently and surveys are performed during these transactions.

Pins are driven into absolute corners, lawns are mowed or maintained to absolute clean lines, and in many cases, fences erected to explicitly indicate boundaries. Not so with large rural parcels.

Four hundred years ago there was no wire fencing, not much in the way of stones or “permanent” markers in this part of the world. Time and neglected maintenance has obscured many markers thought to be long-lived.

In Virginia, there are many acres in ownership that go back to at least the 1930s, if not multiple generations, and in some cases back to the King’s grant. And amazingly much of this property has never been surveyed.

And it is astounding to look at old property deeds written in the 1600s with a quill pen in such vague and temporal terms. An example may be “starting at the old oake (sic) tree and proceeding 16 rods wanting 4 links along the road to Widow Bartlett’s, then No. 17o Et 19 rods to a chestnut tree, then following the centerline of a meandering creek . . .”

If you can even read the handwriting with the unusual lettering, and you can find out how long a rod actually is, and you realize that the oak that was already old is no longer to be found and chestnut trees as a species have essentially been wiped out, there is no way without a soil scientist or archeologist to locate a 400-year-old dirt road that no longer exists. No one alive has any notion of who the Bartletts were, and the meandering creek is now a beaver pond.

So you can see how challenging it becomes to know where boundaries are actually located. Many people “know” their boundaries perhaps from a walk with Granddad one afternoon 30 years ago.

So often timber is sold on a property and the owner will typically walk the boundary with the purchaser and mark a boundary with plastic flagging. So the purchaser is taking this owner at his word that the boundary is correct.

Sadly, many times investigation stops here and harvest begins, and this is frequently when mistakes are made.

A careful purchaser will then take a trip to the courthouse and pull the deed and any adjacent deeds — first to verify ownership, then to confirm boundaries where unclear. This step alone can resolve any potential mistakes.

In cases where there is still uncertainty, employing the professional services of a forester or a surveyor is advised. In fact, I would advise employing a consultant forester for any significant timber sale and a surveyor for any property where a “modern” plat has not been established.

Then once an authoritative boundary has been established, mark it and maintain those marks. A surveyor will install pins at corners and directional changes, but these pins are driven in the ground and not very obvious in a forested setting. So to enhance the boundary, typically trees are marked by chopping slashes in the bark with a machete. Many times this is done only at infrequent intervals and still may not be visible from a distance. So it is usual to scrape and apply paint hash marks at more frequent intervals along a boundary. These painted boundary trees, not only assist in avoiding inadvertent timber theft, if properly applied can serve as posting against trespassing of any kind. Using aluminum color paint to create a vertical line at least 2 inches in width and at least 8 inches in length, no less than 3 feet and not more than 6 feet from the ground or normal water surface and visible when approaching the property achieves this posting in lieu of signage. This bark scraping and paint technique is typically effective for about 7 years at which time repainting is advised.

This establishment and maintenance of boundaries is a huge first step in avoiding liability due to trespass, adverse possession (taking of land unclaimed for seven years) and timber theft.

Folks who do find timber stolen from their property do have recourse, however this process of doing so typically incurs such time and expense as to not justify its pursuit unless an extremely large value of timber is removed.

So I would encourage anyone owning property to have boundaries established and maintained, to save many headaches and to give you peace of mind.

For more information on selling timber, Virginia Cooperative Extension is hosting a series of workshops in February. Contact my office at 653-2572 for more information.

NEIL CLARK is the southeast regional forestry extension agent and the unit coordinator at the Southampton Extension office. He can be reached at