The Lacey Act: Protecting the Protector

April 30, 2012 | 10:47 am
Calen May-Tobin
Former contributor

Question: Which U.S. law that protects endangered species, tropical forests, and U.S. jobs is now in need of  protection itself?

Answer: The Lacey Act.

For the last 100 years the Lacey Act has protected endangered species within the United States by making it illegal to transport them across state lines. In 2008, the act was amended to include a ban on the importation of illegally harvested timber from foreign countries. Now these amendments are under attack in Congress.

Silky Sifaka

Species, like the critically endangered silky sifaka (Propithecus candidus), are further threatened by illegal logging.

So, how do you protect a protector?  Since all our super hero costumes are at the dry cleaners, we did what UCS does best: We wrote a report and organized a congressional briefing to get the findings to those who need them the most.

The briefing, which was moderated by Lisa Handy from the Environmental Investigation Agency,  featured UCS analyst Pipa Elias who provided an overview of her new report Logging and the Law: How the U.S. Lacey Act Helps Reduce Illegal Logging in the Tropics, as well as a number of experts from academia, government, and industry.

Protecting the Forests

Dr. Luke Dollar

Dr. Luke Dollar demonstrating the extent of forest loss in Madagascar.

Dr. Luke Dollar, a conservation biologist who works in Madagascar, gave us a first-hand account of the effects of illegal logging on the ground. In his presentation he emphasized the fact that the impacts of illegal logging on developing countries go well beyond the trees being harvested.  Forest is often damaged to remove illegal timber and this disrupts the habitat of lemurs and other critically endangered species.

Further, illegal logging can have negative impacts on people in developing countries.  In addition to robbing these countries governments of tax revenues, illegal logging is also associated with other illegal practices, like money laundering and drug trafficking. Laws like the Lacey Act protect forests and livelihoods by reducing demand for illegal products and creating a disincentive for illegal practices.

Protecting U.S. Jobs

Two business and labor speakers, Jameson French of Northland Forest Products, and Roy Houseman of United Steel Workers, spoke on the importance of the Lacey Act in protecting U.S. jobs in the hardwood timber and pulp and paper industries.

Pipa Elias at UCS Lacey Briefing

UCS analyst Pipa Elias highlights the findings of her new report on the benefits of the Lacey Act.

Illegally harvested tropical hardwoods directly compete with U.S. timber in products such as cabinets, furniture, and flooring. These illegal products can often be sold at a cheaper price, making them more competitive than legally, responsibly produced US products.  U.S. wood product businesses feel that illegal logging has helped contribute to the decline in U.S. wood sector jobs over the last 30 years.

By making these cheaper products illegal, the Lacey Act helps protect US jobs.  In his presentation, Mr. French argued that the Lacey Act helped cushion the US hardwood industry during the recent economic downturn.

Bipartisan efforts

Finally, Lynn Scarlett, former Deputy Secretary of Interior in the Bush Administration, spoke about the genesis of the 2008 amendments to the Lacey Act, which expanded the act to include illegally harvested timber. She pointed out that the amendments were very much a bipartisan effort, led by both Congress (which at the time was controlled by Democrats) and President Bush. They both recognized the economic and environmental benefits from reducing illegal logging.

Protecting Rare and Endangered Things

Endangered tree species are rare. U.S. manufacturing jobs are becoming rare too. And laws like the Lacey Act are even rarer. You probably have a better chance of seeing an ebony tree in the wild then you do of seeing the passage, with such strong bipartisan support, of another law that so effectively protects tropical forests and U.S. jobs. Cutting the forest protections from the Lacey Act, like felling an ebony tree, will have widely felt and long-lasting effects.