current issue web exclusives blog multimedia archive subscribe advertisers
Feature Articles
Editor's Note
Audubon View
Field Notes
Green Guru
Earth Almanac
One Picture

Out of the Woods
The latest version of the Lacey Act prohibits importing illegally logged lumber or products made from that lumber.

Illegal logging in the Kluet Swamp in Gunung Leuser National Park, Indonesia, 1999.
A. Ruwindrijarto/Telapak/Environmental Investigation Agency

In the lush tropical lowlands of Borneo grows a hardwood tree called the ramin, providing habitat for some of the few remaining populations of wild orangutans. Ramin trees, like the primates that live among them, are endangered. They have been illegally logged in Indonesia, ending up in the United States as window frames, pool cues, and $2 dowels sold at hardware stores. In 2001, after a decade of research and lobbying, the Environmental Investigation Agency, an international nonprofit advocacy organization, and its nonprofit partners successfully had ramins included in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). But it’s one of only a few woods that has received that protection—so far.

Now there’s hope for other endangered timber species that are being illegally logged in forests across the globe and ending up in legal marketplaces in the United States. Tucked away in the 2008 farm bill was a revision to the 108-year-old Lacey Act, which originally prohibited the shipment of wild birds and other game hunted illegally in one state from being sold in another state. (The act was signed into law in 1900 and has since been amended several times to incorporate other wildlife, such as amphibians, reptiles, crustaceans, and mollusks.) The most recent revision now makes it illegal to import illegally harvested wood. The amendment is changing business across the globe by requiring U.S. manufacturers to declare the country of origin and species for all imported plant products beginning in April 2009. The United States is the only country with such a law, though others are crafting similar regulations.

Ramin logs and an employee from a furniture company based in Kuantan, Peninsular Malaysia.
Environmental Investigation Agency/Telapak

“It’s already had an extraordinary impact,” says Alexander von Bismarck, executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency. “We have countless anecdotes of companies changing their purchasing policies and how they do business overseas.”

Until now companies have been operating on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to wood products, says von Bismarck. Various countries ban the logging of certain tree species or taking timber from particular forests. But once the illicit wood leaves the country of origin, it has been fair game on the open market.

It’s estimated that 10 to 15 percent of wood imported into the United States comes from questionable sources. The contraband depresses prices for timber products around the globe, denies local populations of their natural resources, and robs local governments of a source of taxation. “It’s a black box filled with criminality, violence, national resource theft, and human rights abuses,” says von Bismarck.

A United Kingdom customs seizure of thousands of yards of picture frame moldings made from ramin, which arrived from Indonesia without CITES permits under a false species name. Occurring in 2002, this was the UK's largest seizure of wood ever. The importing company had to pay more than $180,000 in forfeited goods and fines.
Environmental Investigation Agency/Telapak

Illegally harvested wood also hurts the U.S. economy—it’s estimated to cost our timber industry $1 billion a year. “The Lacey Act has had unprecedented support from not just NGOs but from industry, labor, and trade groups,” says Ani Youatt, an advocate for the Latin America BioGems Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “American manufacturers were finding it hard to compete.”

Starting in April, importers will have to declare the species of wood and country of origin for timber and furniture coming into this country. Similar declarations will eventually be made for other plant products as well, although enforcement officials are still hammering out the details.

As with all imports, customs officials won’t inspect every lumber shipment. But the process of making companies document their entire supply chain to make sure they’ve done the required due diligence is bound to clean up the business, experts say.

“Just to have the Chinese manufacturers ask the sawmill in Indonesia to show them their concession permits,” says von Bismarck, noting that China is the world’s largest exporter of finished wood products. “That’s happening right now. That’s something we’ve never been able to achieve.”

A merbau tree in West Papua, Indonesia. These trees have also been subjected to illegal logging.
Dave Currey/Environmental Investigation Agency/Telapak, all rights reserved

To ensure timber has been legally harvested, many companies are turning to the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a nonprofit whose certification system for sustainably sourced wood is globally renowned. “We’re focused on the supply chain connections,” says Karen Steer, of the council’s U.S. division. Importers are coming to the FSC and its partners with international offices to certify every supplier, from the loggers to the exporters.

While the United States is the first country to ban illegal timber products, the European Union is negotiating similar measures. But even without complementary regulations from other major importers, there is wide support from governments of source countries such as Brazil, because they cannot effectively curtail illegal logging when there is high demand. The NRDC’s Youatt notes that after Peruvian mahogany was included in CITES in 2003, trade in that wood decreased 90 percent. She expects to see real gains for other species because of the Lacey Act.

“If we continue to create the kind of coalitions that brought [the Lacey amendment] about,” says von Bismarck, “I am convinced it can change the face of a trillion-dollar industry and give us real hope to change the drivers of deforestation around the world.”

Back to Web Exclusives