Local man gets a year in jail in timber theft from federal park land on Lookout Mountain

Staff photo by Ben Benton / A log from illegal tree cutting on the slopes of Lookout Mountain in the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park lies in a small wet-weather brook on March 18, 2021. The stump of an old-growth white oak tree stands a few feet away in an area where more than a dozen federally-protected trees were cut in September.

A local man known to live in the Bryant, Alabama, and Trenton, Georgia, areas has been sentenced to almost a year in jail in the theft of more than a dozen trees, among them old-growth oaks, from the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park on Lookout Mountain.

James Darren Scott, 53, was arrested after an investigation led to charges of cutting and removing the trees in September 2020, according to a news release from the National Park Service. The loss and damage caused by Scott's theft totals almost $60,000, officials said.

"They get old-growth white oak timber and they take it over to a sawmill in Alabama that makes barrels," National Park Ranger and case agent Justin Young said Thursday. The sawmill specializes in old-growth oak and only uses large sections of trees with no limbs. The attraction of cash for trees is too much to resist for some people eyeing trees on public land, Young said.

"It's a big problem on public lands," he said.

Tennessee Division of Forestry spokesman Tim R. Phelps said old trees are important for habitat, the forest environment and people who love the outdoors, but certain species are increasingly attractive to tree poachers.

White oak trees grow longer than most other species of oaks and produce acorns every year, unlike some other oaks, Phelps said, and they can live 250 to 300 years.

White oak trees are in high demand because of the popularity of Tennessee whiskey and Kentucky bourbon, he said.

"Both states have laws that declare that to be called a Tennessee whiskey or Kentucky bourbon they have to be produced in virgin white oak barrels, so barrels cannot be reused for those spirits," Phelps said. "And demand for Tennessee whiskey and Kentucky bourbon is at an all-time high worldwide."

Landowners who have potentially valuable timber on their properties should work with a private forester to determine value of any trees stolen or just to know how much the timber on their land is worth and whether it needs to be protected from theft, Phelps said.

"Because of the high demand for white oak across the region, it's potentially leading to more cases of theft," he said. "It's a problem we're aware of."

In September, Young was patrolling the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park on the slopes of Lookout Mountain when he noticed an illegal road created off Old Wauhatchie Pike. Walking up the slope of the mountain, he saw more than a dozen cut trees, including several old-growth oaks, he said.

Smaller trees nearer the road were cut and quickly hauled away, while one large diameter cut-tree section was removed by dragging it from the forest down Old Wauhatchie Pike to a parking lot several hundred yards away, Young said.

Several live-monitored cellular game cameras were installed and captured images of a man revisiting the site a few days later. The cameras used in the investigation were provided by a National Park Friends group after Evi the bobcat was accidentally freed in a break-in at Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center in the summer of 2019, not far from the tree theft site.

After interviewing nearby neighbors, family members and acquaintances in Georgia, and visiting the sawmill in Alabama, Young said he collected Scott's personal information and information on the vehicle used in the theft. Several people familiar with Scott identified him and his vehicle from the game camera photos, Young said. Evidence that was gathered led to an arrest warrant, and Scott was taken into custody without incident.

Instead of going to trial, Young said, Scott accepted a plea deal on a charge of theft under $10,000 and was sentenced to 11 months and 29 days he is serving at the Silverdale Correctional Complex. Young said Scott was not allowed to serve the sentence on probation because he had prior tree theft charges and had served time.

Although an arrest and conviction is an accomplishment, "the damage assessment incurred to the public and to the national park remains ongoing," Young said. "It is difficult to put a price tag on trees that are over 100 years old."

The public's old-growth trees "offer more than just board feet value to national park visitors," he said. Old-growth oaks can produce enormous amounts of acorns that a variety of wildlife eat.

A specialist with the U.S. Department of the Interior estimated Scott's combined theft and damage at about $60,000, according to officials.

Anyone with information about this case or related issues is urged to contact the case agent, park ranger Justin Young, at 706-866-9241, ext. 142. To submit a tip, call or text 888-653-0009.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.