LONDONDERRY — Walking through his Ross County tree farm, Jim Savage stopped and looked down.
"There it is," he said, pointing to the jagged tree stump.
In the grass lay the remains of a massive black walnut tree.
About 50 yards away along Salt Creek were the spindly limbs of two other fallen trees.
The trees were not victims of natural threats such as disease or weather, but rather poachers.
Tree poaching, Savage said, is a growing problem statewide. And because the prices of white oak and black walnut have risen, the problem is getting worse.
Forests cover about a third of Ohio, and private individuals own 86 percent of that land, said Greg Guess, program administrator for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Division of Forestry.
Because so much land is owned by individuals, many of whom own large swaths of forest or live outside the state, Guess said it's hard to know the full extent of timber theft in Ohio.
Often, timber theft isn't intentional, Savage said. It usually happens when someone accidentally cuts past their property line.
"But when these opportunistic thieves are stealing trees right from the side of the road, that's no accident," he said. "That's outright theft."
Savage first suspected that someone was stealing from his property earlier this year. The Columbus-based lawyer saw two fallen trees on a pocket of his neighbor's property.
He drove a little farther up the road and saw that one of his trees also was down. The total value, Savage estimated, was several thousand dollars.
Other states with extensive timber economies, such as Oregon, have plenty of regulations to prevent and prosecute timber theft. But in Ohio, Savage said, it can be harder to prosecute.
"The first thing you do is call the sheriff, a deputy comes out and takes a report, but shrugs his shoulders and says it's a civil matter," Savage said. "If someone came and hot-wired your car and stole it, no deputy sheriff would say that's a civil matter."
When poachers are taken to court, Savage said, the cost of timber theft becomes clear. In 2016, a Vinton County logger was sentenced to four years in prison for stealing $2 million worth of timber from a Grove City man's property.
Luckily for Savage, the Ross County sheriff's office made an arrest. Robert Silcott, 42, of Londonderry, was charged in March with four felonies and one misdemeanor related to tree poaching, including theft and vandalism. Savage said deputies were able to match the chain-saw cuts on Savage's trees to several other cases, including some in state forests.
Owners can protect against timber theft by regularly inspecting properties, installing gates and motion-activated cameras, clearly marking boundary lines with paint or signs, and taking an inventory of the timber and estimating its value, the state suggests.
Savage said he hopes more counties will take timber theft as seriously as it was in his case.
"If law enforcement were as aggressive as I found the people in Ross County to be," he said, "I think a lot of this could be alleviated."