Timber Rights: Can You Own the Land and Not the Trees?

Timber rights and property rights can be in the hands of two separate people. Here are the legal ins and outs.
By Jean Vernon
August/September 1999
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Timber can be an incredibly valuable aspect of land. Before you buy property, be sure to look into any associated timber rights.

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When buying land a person should always inquire about timber rights. This relatively old legality allows individuals to own all or part of the standing timber on any given piece of property — without actually owning the land on which it grows. It's considered part of the bundle of rights to land, most of which can be sold separately.

Historically, the rights to timber were sold by farmers who wanted to clear their land anyway for crops or livestock, and during the Great Depression folks were more than happy to get money for their standing timber. These days it's worth your while to check the fine print on your title deed so no one shows up with a chain saw and turns your favorite shade tree into a collection of 2-by-4s.

About Timber Deeds

Timber deeds are written in many different ways. Some allow for perpetuity, while others allow for logging within a certain period of time, after which the deed is extinguished.

Moreover, depending on the specific timber deed, the owners of the timber may take all of the trees, only trees over a certain size or only trees of a certain species. It's interesting to note that the value of timber is measured using the diameter at breast height — or DBH — in order to avoid the butt swell and give a more accurate indicator of board feet.

In most states if the timber will not be included in the sale of the land it will show up as an exception in the title report, title certificate or abstract of title. But if a buyer has concerns about the matter, he or she should write an offer subject to receiving all of the timber rights. That way, if the timber rights are not included, the buyer is not bound to go through with the sale.

In cases where the timber rights have been sold separately, timber owners are often willing to sell the trees back to the landowner. An owner should buy back the timber whenever possible, as it increases the value and salability of the land. The price the owner will pay is usually determined by a timber cruise, or by checking mill records to see when the land was last logged (the growth that occurred since that time can be extrapolated and the price will be set accordingly).

Logging on Private Land

Finally, keep in mind that many states are imposing increasingly severe restrictions for logging on private land.

Even if a person owns all the timber rights for the property, the state may prohibit the cutting of any trees in certain areas and limit cutting in other areas. These restrictions usually include cutting trees for private use, as well as commercial logging.

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