How the United States is Combatting International Deforestation Through Trade

By Colorado Law Student Stone Macbeth

For years, illegal deforestation and logging has consistently wiped out natural habitats and indigenous peoples’ communities, put various animals around the world in danger, and decreased the world’s oxygen levels. As noted in a report issued by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and Wildlife, illegal deforestation and logging is still a major enterprise in countries such as Russia, Brazil, and Honduras. Some countries around the world, such as Australia and members of the European Union, have started to implement legislation and policy to try and restrict the flow of illegally obtained lumber—and the United States is in the fight.

Conservation in the United States began with the philosophy of Henry David Thoreau and the science of George Perkins Marsh in the mid-nineteenth century. Amateur taxonomy and public interest in preserving wild animal populations for hunting, along with an interest in growing agriculture, gave rise to a progressive movement. Part of this movement culminated in 1900, when Iowa Congressman John Lacey proposed the Lacey Act, which President William McKinley signed into law shortly thereafter. At first, the Lacey Act was only concerned with the domestic trade of wildlife and fish that had been illegally taken, transported, possessed, or sold across state lines. The law was primarily aimed at curbing the introduction of potentially invasive bird species. While these ideals are still important to the American people, Congress has more recently utilized the Lacey Act to expand wildlife protection.

Although the Lacey Act has been amended several times—in 1969, 1981, and 1988—Congress’ most recent amendment in 2008 extended the Act’s protection to plants. The Act now encompasses an expansive collection of plants, including “any wild member of the plant kingdom, including roots, seeds, parts or product thereof, including trees from either natural or planted forest stands.” By expressly including trees, the 2008 amendment also prohibits importation of any goods or lumber derived from illegally obtained trees.

The few cases litigated under the 2008 amendment have relayed a strong and important message to American companies and those abroad—the United States will not tolerate the importation of illegally obtained lumber. One of the more famous cases is commonly known as “the Gibson raid.” In 2011, Gibson Brands Inc., a respected American guitar company known for making high quality guitars, had one of their warehouses raided by the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI had been notified that Gibson was building guitars using illegally obtained ebony from Madagascar, and illegally-obtained wood from India. Gibson officials denied ever knowing that the company was involved in the international trade of protected lumber, and the case ultimately ended in a settlement. As reported by Andrew Revkin at the New York Times, Gibson agreed to “pay a $300,000 fine, make a $50,000 contribution to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and forfeit wood valued at $261,000 seized in a prior 2009 government raid on its Nashville facilities.” While having to pay over $350,000 in fines and contributions may only be a drop in the bucket for a company as large as Gibson, this case was a major wake-up call to American companies. The willingness of the United States’ government to go after such a longstanding and respected American company showed that the 2008 Amendment to the Lacey Act was going to be taken seriously.

While the Gibson raid certainly caused a stir, the most substantial crackdown came in Kiken v. Lumber Liquidators Holdings, Inc. According to the Department of Justice, Lumber Liquidators was convicted of violating the Lacey Act for illegally importing protected wood from China to build hardwood flooring in 2016. The wood it imported into the United States was manufactured in China but had been illegally obtained from an area of Russia that provided habitat for the “last remaining Siberian Tigers and Amur leopards in the world.”The amount of timber Lumber Liquidators imported was substantial. In total, it was required to pay “$13.5 million, including $7.8 million in criminal fines, $969,175 in criminal forfeiture and more than $1.23 million in community service payments.” Additionally, the government imposed a five-year probation term on the company allowing customs inspectors and state officials to consistently monitor the company’s operations. This case was the first time that the United States government was able to show how strong the Lacey Act could be when enforced. Since this case, there has been no other substantial litigation regarding illegally imported lumber.

The United States has shown that it takes illegal logging and deforestation very seriously. The amendment of the Lacey Act, along with the litigation pursued under its provisions, has sent a very direct message to American companies—illegal logging will not be tolerated. We can only hope that the implementation of the Lacey Act will remain strong, and that the United States will continue to hold its companies to a higher standard. The world needs its trees, and the 2008 amendment to the Lacey Act is a small but substantial step in ensuring it keeps them.

Stone Macbeth is a rising 2L at Colorado Law and a Staff Writer for the Colorado Natural Resource, Energy, and Environmental Law Review