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Crucial U.S. Conservation Legislation Under Attack in Congress

By Alexandra Stark

The Lacey Act, the legislative centerpiece of U.S. efforts to combat illegal logging and wildlife trafficking for the past 110 years, has come under attack in Congress. Amendments to the Lacey Act passed in 2008, which ban the import of wood products that were illegally harvested in their country of origin into the U.S., have angered tea party conservatives, who are trying to paint this legislation as an example of “government overreach.” The 2008 amendments are critical to U.S. efforts to combat global illegal logging, and have contributed to a 22 percent reduction in global illegal logging in just the four years since they were passed.

After Gibson Guitar was raided by the Fish and Wildlife Service last August for allegedly importing stolen wood, two bills were introduced in Congress that are designed to gut some of the most important pieces of the 2008 amendments.  The RELIEF Act (H.R. 3210), sponsored by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-CA), and Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN), would remove the declaration requirement for importers, exempt ‘non-solid wood products,’ drastically reduce penalties, and allow manufacturers to keep illegal wood that is currently subject to confiscation.  In other words, it would essentially remove incentives to ensure legal sourcing of wood.

The FOCUS Act (H.R. 4171), sponsored by Rep. Broun (R-GA) (with a similar bill in the Senate from Sen. Paul (R-KY)), goes even further, and would make it completely legal to import any wood that was illegally logged outside of the U.S.

In a hearing on Tuesday, musicians, forest products industry executives, and former Bush administration CEOs spoke out against these efforts to gut the Lacey Act.  The sponsors of the  RELIEF Act claim the bill will provide ‘relief’ for individual musicians who are concerned that their instruments might be seized under the Lacey Act (even though the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has explicitly stated that “individual consumers and musicians…have no need for concern about confiscation of their instruments.”).  A coalition of musicians gave the lie to this concern at the hearing: Adam Gardner, lead singer of the band Guster and founder of Reverb presented a pledge in support of the Lacey Act, signed by a number of famous musicians including Bonnie Raitt, Dave Matthews Band, Maroon 5, Jack Johnson, Willie Nelson, the Barenaked Ladies, and Jason Mraz.

Gardner said that “in effect H.R. 3210 only provides 'relief' to illegal loggers while leaving musicians and other consumers of wood products with burdensome doubt about the legality and sustainability of the wood products we use.  By contrast, the Lacey Act provides comforting assurance to conscientious consumers like myself that the wood I am buying in my instruments or elsewhere is legally sound.”

Witnesses also highlighted the positive economic impacts of the Lacey Act.  The American forest products industry employs 900,000 workers, and prior to the passage of the Lacey Act, illegal logging cost U.S. producers $1 billion annually. “Leveling the playing field for legitimate American producers of forest products was an important objective underlying the Lacey Act,” said Mark Rey, former Undersecretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and the Environment under the Bush Administration.

Illegal logging has devastating environmental impacts, and makes up a significant part of global deforestation, which accounts for 20 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.  It devastates forest ecosystems, including some of the most bio-diverse places in the world.

Illegal logging also dampens economic development and helps corruption to flourish by undermining the rule of law.  Illegal logging cartels have been implicated in drug and sex trafficking, slavery, and labor abuse.  The importance of the Lacey Act’s role in supporting the rule of law around the world was underscored by the recent murder of Cambodian conservationist Chut Wutty, who was killed while working to expose illegal logging of rosewood, often used in musical instruments, and other species in Cambodia’s national parks.

Alex Stark is an associate at Climate Advisers.  Follow her on Twitter: @Alexmstark

Image Credit: Rainforest Action Network, Flickr


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