Retailers, homebuilders and importers are urging Congress to take a fresh look at an environmental law that was amended four years ago to combat trafficking in illegal logging and lumber production.
The Lacey Act, passed in 1900 to curb shipments of endangered animal species, was amended in 2008 to include all plants and products. The amendments also required companies to certify that they hadn’t violated laws of exporting nations.
No one disputes the need to prevent illegal logging, but numerous industry groups complain the Lacey amendments are too broad and have created unintended consequences by subjecting companies to red tape and legal liability.
“Retailers recognize the need for environmental conservation, but the current law leaves them guessing on which products are legal and which aren’t,” said Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the National Retail Federation. “Congress needs to carefully review the Lacey Act to ensure that the goal of eliminating illegal logging is its primary objective, not penalizing businesses that are doing their best to comply with an unworkable law.”
The music industry has taken a particularly close interest in the Lacey Act after Fish and Wildlife Service agents raided factories of Nashville-based Gibson Guitars in 2009 and 2011 to confiscate ebony and rosewood said to have been exported illegally from Madagascar and India.
The Lacey amendments could allow seizure of instruments from musicians who unknowingly own instruments made from illegally sourced wood, Jeffrey “Skunk” Baxter, a guitarist for bands including Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers, told a House Fisheries, Wildlife, Oceans and Insular Affairs subcommittee hearing.
“I agree that people who unknowingly violate the law should be punished,” Baxter said. “But people who follow the rules, exercise good judgment, and buy from reputable sources should not be put in a Kafkaesque situation where no proof is needed and no appeal is heard.”
Government officials say enforcement is targeted at commercial importers, not individual retailers or musicians. Adam Gardner, front man of a band called Guster and founder and co-director of the environmental nonprofit group Reverb, said the Lacey Act “does not pose a threat to musicians. 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.”
In the wake of the Gibson seizures, Reps. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., introduced a bill to eliminate penalties for unknowingly possessing illegal woods and to exempt wood products imported before 2008.
A separate bill by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Paul Broun, R-Ga., would remove the Lacey amendments’ references to foreign law and reduce penalties. Paul called the law an example of criminal law “increasingly being used as a tool by our government bureaucracies to punish and control honest businessmen.”
The Rand-Broun bill is backed by a handful of conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation. The Cooper-Blackburn bill has support from organizations representing manufacturers, homebuilders, retailers, wood products importers and groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Federation of Independent Business.
Congress isn’t expected to revise the Lacey Act during the current session, but witnesses at the House hearing said the issue isn’t going away.
Industry groups have called for changes to allow companies to challenge Lacey Act seizures, limit the scope of foreign laws with which companies must comply, exempt products made with wood imported before 2008, and eliminate the requirement for import declarations to the U.S. Animal and Plant Inspection Service.
The requirements for declarations have been a sore point for importers that must provide the genus, species and country of harvest for every shipment. The Animal and Plant Inspection Service receives some 9,200 Lacey Act declarations a week and hasn’t completed its phase-in of wood products covered by the law.
Laurie Everill, regional customs compliance and operations manager at IKEA-North America, said IKEA doesn’t favor eliminating import declarations, but said the current requirement is impractical, especially for composite wood products.
Everill said IKEA is “looking for a new legislative approach” that addresses business concerns, has bipartisan support in Congress and doesn’t undermine efforts to stop illegal logging. She said neither of the current bills do that, “and in order to be credible, any change needs to be supported by the environmental community.”
Several witnesses cautioned against wholesale changes. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., said the existing law should be given time to work. He noted the Lacey amendments in 2008 were passed with bipartisan support, and said the proposed bills would undermine the entire law.
Donna Harman, president and CEO of the American Forest and Paper Association, said U.S. producers support bans on illegal wood imports.
Eileen Sobeck, deputy assistant secretary at the Interior Department, said limiting prosecutions to those who knowingly violate the law “would provide an incentive for importers to be ignorant or claim ignorance of the contents or his or her shipments.”