The United States is one of the world's largest consumers of timber and wood products. While much of that wood is produced in American forests, about $40 billion worth of timber is imported into the U.S. each year.
How that wood is grown and whether it was harvested legally have become crucial questions since 2008, when the U.S. Congress amended a century-old piece of environmental law known as the Lacey Act.
The amended law bans the import of wood products from illegal logging operations, and threatens U.S. companies that violate the law with stiff fines, jail time, and confiscation of their illicitly-traded timber or forest products.
Six months ago, agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service raided the Gibson Guitar company plant in Nashville, Tennessee and seized shipments of illegally harvested rosewood from Madagascar. The famed instrument maker is being investigated for violating the federal law.
Allan Thornton is president of the Environmental Investigation Agency, a Washington-based nonprofit that documents illegal logging activities worldwide.
"As we're following the timber flow through countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan and China and back into the United States or Japan and European Union countries," he says, "we became gradually aware that illegal logging is pervasive around the world."
Extent of the problem
The extent of illegal logging varies widely by exporting country and species.
According to an Environmental Investigation Agency report, in some countries it is as high as 60 to 80 percent. Thornton says the new amendment to the Lacey Act is a wake-up call for anyone who wants to trade in the lucrative U.S. wood products market.
He estimates about 10 percent of wood imported into the United States is illegal.
Everyone wants to export to the United States and that creates a huge incentive for producers and exporters to be in compliance with the U.S. Lacey Act. It also creates a huge disincentive for those who want to export or trade in illegal wood products.
Thornton is encouraged by the response to the law from timber exporters and forest-dependent communities who look to their local forests for fuel, food and livelihood.
"So we feel that it is a rising tide that lifts all boats in joint efforts to protect the global forests," says Thornton.
The Environmental Investigation Agency is a partner in the newly formed Forest Legality Alliance, a global initiative that includes business, government and non-profit groups.
The focus, says Adam Grant, who manages the program for the World Resources Institute, is to help industry answer some basic questions: "Where did you buy your timber? What is the volume? What is the value and is it legal? Once you get this information then you are going to be able to differentiate between a risky proposition for purchase to a less risky [purchase]."
Grant says the alliance will develop an easy-to-use, on-line risk management program to help companies sort through a minefield of legal and environmental regulations.
"If you want to buy from a country, you can click on that country and you can drill down to the district you want to buy from and different information will pop up of what the legal requirements of that country [are], the risk from purchasing there, the species you're purchasing, what are the ramifications of buying that and then you can make an informed decision."
Businesses on board
Another partner in the Forest Legality Alliance is the International Wood Products Association, an industry trade group that represents 200 companies, mostly in the United States.
Executive Vice President Brent McClendon says taking steps to assure legal trade makes good sense for the environment and for business
"By doing more trade, you are doing [well] in the forest. And so, once we get out there in the alliance and we start talking about the value that increased trade brings for forest protection, then it's going to allow us to sell the message so that architects and designers can increasingly specify imported wood products. It gives them an assurance, almost a de-facto certification that imported wood products are good."
McClendon adds that it is an opportunity to harvest sustainable timber and gain access to new markets as traders comply with the new requirements. He says the European Union and Australia are considering similar rules to curb illegal wood trade.