US Helps Destroy World's Forests
May 31 , 2006
In April, a Florida court sentenced a man to more than two years in prison for attempting sell a gorilla skull and some snow leopard skins over the Internet. In May, another Florida court handed down a similar sentence to another man who had returned to the United States with fish he caught illegally in the Bahamas. In Virginia, a ginseng dealer once received a three-year sentence and a $12,500 fine for disregarding federal regulations governing the ginseng trade.
What all three men had in common was their violation of the Lacey Act, a federal law first passed in 1900 that makes it illegal to traffic in any wildlife, fish, or plant products that have been obtained in violation of any state, federal, or foreign law.
Over the years, the government has used the Lacey Act to prosecute importers who obtained products in violation of other countries’ laws on trading in ivory, fur, shellfish, butterflies, big game, rare herbs, caviar, medicinal roots, and hundreds of other products.
But one forest product for which the Lacey Act provides a loophole is the forest itself. The law specifically does not apply to wood products deriving from trees cut in violation of other countries’ laws.
“The United States is the world’s largest importer and consumer of timber and wood products, and imports hundreds of millions of dollars of wood products from illegal sources each year,” says Allan Thornton, president of the nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency, which has worked to persuade Congress to close the Lacey Act loophole. (A process to do just that was defeated in congressional conference committee in 2004.)
While it’s wrong to circumvent another country’s forest laws to profit from illegally importing any product, illegal logging of wood products carries some of the gravest consequences for human health and the health of the planet, and deserves at least equal status under the law.
Forests clean and preserve our environment. They filter our water and clean our air, prevent erosion of our land, protect against flooding, and reduce the threat of global warming. Globally, we lose a net 18 million acres of forest every year. This reduces forests’ capacity to absorb carbon dioxide – the major greenhouse gas causing global warming – by an amount roughly equivalent to the annual carbon dioxide pollution produced by all the US cars on the road today.
When countries enact forest protection laws, it is to preserve forests’ ability to protect us from not only global warming, but from a host of other environmental problems. For example, China enacted a domestic logging ban in 1998, after determining that deforestation along its rivers had contributed to devastating flooding that displaced more than 100 million people.
Since then, however, China has become the number one importer of cut timber in the world (much of it illegal, according to the Environmental Investigation Agency), outsourcing the deforestation problem to other countries. Also since 1998, imports to the United States of wood products made in China have increased 900 percent. Without an amendment to the Lacey Act in place, all such imports are perfectly legal, regardless of whether they do harm to places like Indonesia, where illegal logging has contributed to hundreds of natural disasters, and threatens local species with extinction.
The Bush administration has demonstrated an understanding the problem, launching the President’s Initiative Against Illegal Logging in 2003, which seeks to help developing countries combat illegal logging within their borders. Just this past April, the administration opened a fresh round of talks with Indonesia, intended to help that country with its domestic conservation efforts.
However, without real laws in place banning the importation of illegally produced wood products into the United States, such efforts amount to little more than talk. Amending the Lacey Act will not immediately thwart the use of illegal timber in US imports, but would at least put legal structures in place to prosecute companies found disregarding other countries’ forest laws – and would put companies on notice that the United States treats illegal deforestation as a serious issue.
If we can use US laws to protect the world’s gorilla skulls and ginseng, then certainly we can use them to protect something as important as the world’s forests.