The Lacey Act, authored by Congressman John F. Lacey and first enacted in 1900, is the oldest wildlife protection statute on U.S. books. It was originally designed to combat trafficking in illegal wildlife, fish and some plants. The 2008 amendment to the Lacey Act expands the scope of protection to include illegal logging practices, any plant, including derivative products and hardwoods, and gives teeth to the prosecution in terms of both criminal and civil courts. It is also intended to aid law enforcement by requiring importers to declare country of origin, species, and other pertinent information.
The amendment to ban the product of illegal logging was introduced on March 13, 2007 by Congressmen Jerry Weller (R-IL), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), and Robert Wexler (D-FL) in the House of Representatives and then by Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) in the Senate on August 1. It was passed unanimously by the Senate that December, and the law took effect in May of 2008.
Most representatives of the flooring industry are behind the movement toward honest environmental action, but there is little doubt that the amendment to the Lacey Act will have a profound effect on every link in the chain from logging to customer. Enforcement of the law will level the playing field for domestic production companies who have been forced to compete with lower prices generated by manufacturers and suppliers using illegally obtained wood.
What Exactly, Is Illegal?
The Lacey Act holds all parties responsible by stipulating that it is illegal to take, possess, transport, sell, or own illegally harvested wood or products made from illegally harvested wood. While the U.S. may not be able to directly enforce action against illegal logging, importers, manufacturers, sellers, and even customers can be held accountable. Civil penalties of up to $500,000 may be imposed, along with criminal liability in the form of a misdemeanor or felony charge of up to five years in prison. Severity of charges and fines depends on knowledge, whether a person should have known beyond reasonable doubt that the wood or wood product was purchased in violation of the law. The requirement of due care is expected. Importers, retailers, and even customers are expected to know the origins of the wood – and refuse it if the origins are suspect.
The law acknowledges that a company using a trusted supplier may be duped into believing a product is legal when it is not. In most such cases, the product would be forfeit, but no further legal action would be taken.
In addition to requirements that importers declare statements of origin under the new act, flooring contractors and retailers are advised by the World Floor Covering Association (WFCA) to protect themselves and their investments by taking the following steps:
- Require and include origin information supplied by the exporter in the purchase order form.
- Obtain written confirmation that the foreign supplier certifies that the fabrication material has been harvested in a manner that complies with the law.
- Document at every level all steps the company takes to ensure the products are legally harvested and manufactured.
- Include a specific provision in the purchase agreement that the supplier will “hold harmless, indemnify, and defend” the purchasing company for inaccurate information provided by the supplier resulting in a violation of the Lacey Act.
Sellers should protect themselves and their practices with similar documentation, since trafficking of illegally harvested products puts the retailers at equal risk to importers. Every link in the supplier chain should document the origins of the materials to the best of its ability.
Why Lacey is Relevant
These laws may sound harsh, but the importation of illegally harvested wood products is on the increase, and with it, the dangers associated with unregulated logging practices. The Environmental Investigation Agency estimates that 10% of the hardwood flooring sold in the U.S. comes from illegally harvested forests. The new provisions cover not only hardwood planking, but also most other materials that can conceivably be made or extracted from trees and plants— including materials used to manufacture laminates, glues, particle boards, and other kinds of flooring products.
This amendment places the legal harvesting burden of proof on the country of origin, but at the same time it holds importers accountable. The onus is on the supply chain to report suspected violations to the Department of Agriculture’s Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection or the International Trade Commission.
The passage of the Lacey Act Amendment is only the beginning. Enforcement presents a significant challenge and requires cooperation by industry as well as regulatory bodies. Exporters, importers, manufacturers, shippers, and retailers must all be aware of the law and understand its implications. With the U.S. alone participating, the new law is expected to have global market impact, but other countries are already adopting variations on the Lacey Act to establish their own set of standards. The U.K. has already undertaken a Lacey Act approach and global leaders agree that such action is needed and justified.
The Lacey Act Amendment is the first legislation of its kind and according to a spokesperson from Greenpeace “is the most important piece of US forestry legislation passed in the past decade.” As the largest consumer nation in the world, the U.S. hopes to use its purchasing power to make significant inroads against illegal logging practices worldwide. By making the entire supply chain accountable, the hope is that demand for cheap products produced by illegal logging will dry up in the face of unreasonably high risk. Current information is available at APHIS.