Part of the White House’s Plan to Conserve Global Forests involves “continuing the full enforcement of the Lacey Act”.

Advocates of the Lacey Act often cite the need to reduce tropical deforestation by stemming the flow of illegal wood and deforestation. But there’s a lack of evidence that the law is effective at doing this.

In fact, there’s evidence to the contrary.

In Peru, for example, tree cover loss increased at a faster rate than its neighbors following the seizure of Peruvian timber and enforcement of the Lacey Act on its buyers.

Perhaps one reason that the Lacey Act has failed to protect forests is because that was never the intention of the 2008 wood amendment.

In reviewing congressional hearings, scientific reports, and other public records, it becomes evident that the Lacey Act was amended, not to protect forests, but to protect the U.S. forest products industry.

See also: Did AHEC pay to exempt US hardwoods from the EUTR?

The Lacey Act amendment of 2008

The original Lacey Act, passed in 1900, was directed at the preservation of game and wild birds. The 2008 Farm Bill amended the Lacey Act and extended its protections to plant products, including wood.

With the 2008 amendment, the Lacey Act makes wood product supply chain participants liable for the illegal harvest and or trade of wood products anywhere upstream in the supply chain. This includes wood products originating in U.S. forests as well as foreign ones.

It’s unlawful for any person to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire, or purchase any fish or wildlife or plant taken, possessed, transported, or sold in violation of any law, treaty, or regulation of the United States, tribal law, or any foreign law.

Who wanted the Lacey Act to include wood products?

Representatives of the U.S. forest product industry were among the original supporters of the 2008 Lacey Act amendment. According to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) these were:

  • American Forest & Paper Association
  • National Hardwood Lumber Association
  • Hardwood Federation
  • Society of American Foresters

They formed a coalition with major environmental organizations such as the EIA, Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund.

Even more U.S. industry representatives defended the Lacey Act amendment in a letter submitted for a Congressional oversight hearing.

The letter states…

our industry has worked within a unique coalition that also includes environmental groups, labor organizations, retailers and others to amend the Lacey Act, and to encourage full and timely implementation. The coalition has continued consensus talks in the U.S. Senate.

Letter Submitted by the U.S. Forest Products Industry – June 4, 2012

Signatories of this letter included:

Why would the U.S. industry want to regulate forest product trade?

In the years prior to the 2008 Lacey Act amendment, the United States forest products industry was rapidly losing global market share to other forest-rich producing countries.

The volume of imported foreign forest products flowing into the U.S. market rose 334% between 1991 and 2004. (From 31.3 Million cubic meters to 104.8 Million m3). In value terms, imports increased 463%. The difference between the value of imports in 1991 and 2004 was US$ 19.11 Billion. That is to say, imported forest products captured $19.11 Billion dollars worth of the U.S. market (on an annual basis) within 13 years.

Meanwhile, U.S. forest products lost market share in foreign markets. Exports of U.S. forest products decreased from 31.8 Million m3 in 1991, to 18.37 Million m3 in 2004 – a 42% drop.

The American Forest & Paper Association commissions a study on illegal logging

In 2004, the American Forest & Paper Association commissioned a study called, “‘Illegal Logging’ and Global Wood Markets: The Competitive Impacts on the U.S. Wood Products Industry“.

The purpose of this study was:

  1. To provide context on the issue of illegal logging from the standpoint of global trading patterns.
  2. “Analyze the impacts of illegally produced and traded wood products on the ability of U.S. producers to export into key overseas markets.”
  3. “Review the various institutional and government initiatives that have been proffered to address illegal logging, paying particular attention to potential implications for U.S. wood products trade.”

This ‘industry study’ is presumably the one the U.S. forest industry cited when expressing support for the Lacey Act amendment in the Lacey Act Congressional oversight hearing in 2013…

In other words, the Lacey Act amendment was seen by the U.S. forest products industry as a way to reduce competition for the U.S. forest products industry by addressing illegal wood flows.

U.S. industry wanted the Lacey Act amendment to close a growing trade deficit

This perspective is echoed by an EIA publication on the Lacey Act amendment.

This illegal trade was also negatively impacting the U.S. forest products sector. As it became clear that amending the Lacey Act would be an effective measure to address these issues, the legislation was proposed in the U.S. Congress by Representative Earl Blumenauer and Senator Ron Wyden, in 2007.

The U.S. Lacey Act – EIA

In the words of a Research Forester with the USDA Forest Service, “The Lacey Act Amendment of 2008 (LAA) was enacted most proximately as a way of reducing aggregate demand for illegally obtained timber products globally.”

According to Prestemon, “…having such material entering global markets serves to depress world wood product prices, indirectly and negatively affecting U.S. producers.”

…having such material entering global markets serves to depress world wood product prices, indirectly and negatively affecting U.S. producers.

Jeffrey P. Prestemon – Research Forester, USDA Forest Service

A key motivation for the Lacey Act wood amendment was to prevent foreign competition from negatively affecting U.S. producers. The conservation of forests was not central to the amendment, as it has rarely been enforced in cases of ‘illegal logging’ in the U.S.

This topic will be discussed in the next article, “The Lacey Act has rarely been enforced in cases of ‘illegal logging’ in the U.S.”.

See also: Are US hardwood imports in violation of the EU Timber Regulation?