In the last few weeks, stands of hardwood forest have been cleared along state Highway 66 in eastern Searcy County by an upstart company called Oxley Timber.
Residents of nearby Leslie and Oxley are incensed, but they have had problems determining exactly who is responsible. The mystery has spawned rumors, chiefly that Dan Lasater, the Little Rock entrepreneur who pleaded guilty to a much publicized cocaine charge in the mid 80's, is somehow involved. His other investments include some timberland near Little Rock.
Residents held a community meeting Dec. 13 in Oxley to discuss their grievances with the company, and the two sides reportedly came to understand each other a little better, but some sore feelings remain.
There’s no clear answer to the question of who’s cutting the timber in Searcy County.
Lettering on the expensive new Oxley Timber Co. trucks indicates that the company is based jointly in Oxley and in Midwest City, Okla., but the company's phone number in Searcy county is unlisted. Oklahoma directory assistance lists a number for Oxley Timber in Midwest City, but no one answers the phone.
The company has only been incorporated in Arkansas since Oct. 11, and the only name listed in the corporate records at the Secretary of State's office is that of North Little Rock attorney Mike Hartje., who didn’t return phone calls from Arkansas Times regarding Oxley Timber.
Calls to the state Department of Pollution Control & Ecology indicate the company has not applied for any of the environmental permits — air, water and solid waste — that PC&E normally requires prior to the construction of something like a sawmill.
The Times eventually determined that the on-site operators of the business are Roger and Linda Alexander, who used to run a small sawmill operation in Saline County.
"We're not tearing down the forest," said Roger Alexander, who spent 25 years as a logging contractor. "People are just nervous over it, I guess. We're a wood dealer for International Paper Co. We do some clear-cutting if the landowner wants it. We have a cross-tie mill and a lumber mill."
The question of Lasater's involvement, however, is not clear-cut. Roger Alexander says that he has a close friendship with Lasater, but insists that Lasater has no control over or financial interest in the company.
However, Kathy Beattie, an Oxley resident concerned about the cutting, says she was told by Linda Alexander that Lasater's wife, Linda, was the president of the company, and that Roger Alexander was the vice-president. "I don't think my wife said that," says Alexander, who claims he is the president, but won't divulge the name of the vice president or divulge whether company leadership has recently changed hands.
Marshall Mountain Wave reporter Libby Barnes, who says she was was told by Jerry Passmore, the longtime Leslie real estate man who sold timber rights for at least 820 acres to the company for $166,000, that Lasater is involved with the company.
Both Passmore and Lasater failed to return phone calls to the Times concerning Oxley Timber.
Because landowners aren't required to file timber leases with the county clerk, it's impossible to know just how much in timber rights the company has purchased, or what they plan to do with it.
Like many of her neighbors, Tina Marie Wilcox, an herbalist who lives in Oxley, is concerned about the cutting, but acknowledges that there are two sides to the story.
"I am a property owner there, and I want to respect the property owners' right to do what they need to do with their land," she said. "But by the same token, I want to see that the soil is protected."