Illegal logging in the U.S. is common and can even occur on a large scale. The myth that timber from U.S. forests is “low-risk” is rooted in trade protectionist efforts by the U.S. wood products industry. Using industry-sponsored studies, the industry, in partnership with environmental organizations, lobbied to give U.S. forest products an edge with regards to foreign producers.

That illegal logging in the U.S. is not a problem is a virtual myth

Try this experiment. Google “illegal logging in the united states”. A search from a U.S. IP address on May 22, 2022 returns the following claim by the World Wildlife Fund:

Illegal logging in the U.S. is not widespread according to the WWF.

This is false.

It’s a narrative that is used to provide U.S. forest products a kind of exemption from laws prohibiting the trade of illegal wood in global markets, and to protect them in U.S. markets.

Losing market share to foreign wood products

In the early 2000’s, 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.

Illegal logging study prepared for the industry in 2004

The study, “‘Illegal Logging’ and Global Wood Markets: The Competitive Impacts on the U.S. Wood Products Industry“, was prepared in 2004 for the American Forest & Paper Association.

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.”

Subsequently, the problem of illegal logging, within the context of the U.S., became a foreign one, and a major cause of the U.S. industry losing market share. It also became a means to leverage laws in favor of U.S. forest products.

Lead author career in US industry protection

Seneca Creek Associates LLC was the lead author of the study.

According to the Seneca Creek website, “[the founder and President] served on the staff of US International Trade Commission (ITC) and has worked for and with major industry associations and companies.”

The mission of the USITC is to “Investigate and make determinations in proceedings involving imports claimed to injure a domestic industry or violate U.S. intellectual property rights; provide independent analysis and information on tariffs, trade and competitiveness; and maintain the U.S. tariff schedule.”

Lacey Act amended to give U.S. wood products an edge

Later in the 2000’s, apparently on the back of this study, the U.S. industry formed a coalition with the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, EIA and other environmental organizations to amend the Lacey Act to include plant (wood) products.

In the words of the Environmental Investigation Agency, “[illegal logging] 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 Lacey Amendment in 2008 was lobbied for, by industry and environmental groups, to protect U.S markets. There was just one problem, what about illegal logging in the United States.

Seneca Creek Study for the American Hardwood Export Council

Another report was produced, again by Seneca Creek, commissioned by the industry, again, this time the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC). It was called, “Assessment of Lawful Harvesting & Sustainability of US Hardwood Exports“.

According to the study, “This research and report was commissioned by the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) as part of its effort to ascertain the legitimacy of US hardwoods in international trade. In certain export markets, most notably in Europe and Japan, government procurement policies are requiring that wood products be shown to be from legal and sustainable sources. Private market purchasers are increasingly requesting similar assurances. This report evaluates the risk of illegal hardwood timber being in the mix of US hardwood product exports.”

The analysis of focuses on timber theft. Bidder collusion, scaling irregularities, violations of other harvesting practices, transport are not examined in detail. Tax violations are mentioned, of which they state a compliance rate of 84%.

The study concludes, “Based on the data compiled and analyzed, the weight of evidence strongly indicates that there is very low risk that US hardwood exports contain wood from illegal sources.”.

Illegal logging in the U.S. is common and can occur on a large scale

According to the Department of Justice, Black Walnut was logged illegally on a ‘large-scale’ in Virginia recently. Two large Alaska timber sales, managed by the U.S. Forest Service, had many ‘irregularities’ – many of which would be considered illegal in many parts of the world. A study found high likelihood of frequent bidder collusion in Idaho state forest timber sales, costing the state an estimated $41 million in lost revenue. A crowdsourced, multi-state, effort to collect Walnut tree DNA to prosecute timber theft crimes just concluded. And before either of the Seneca Creek studies were produced for the industry, one study study in the southern Appalachian hardwood region estimated that about 120 instances of timber theft occur each year in just a 20 county area.

While illegal logging may not occur at the rate at which it does in other countries of origin, the idea that illegal logging in the U.S. is not a significant problem is a narrative that was created by the industry to protect itself from the Lacey Act Amendment of 2008, and to exempt itself from similar laws governing their export markets (like the European Union Timber Regulation).

Using laws to control wood flows for some countries, while excluding others from these laws, based on industry studies is anti-competitive, stunts industry innovation, and can even lead to a devaluation of global forests. Calls to replicate and further enforce demand side laws like the Lacey Act, to “protect” forests, are just singing the tune of the U.S. forest industry. The narrative that “illegal logging in the U.S. is not common” is not a story of forest conservation, but one of trade protection.