Corporate Criminals and the Need for Strong Protections Against Illegal Logging

On an otherwise ordinary Thursday this fall, officers from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided the corporate headquarters of Lumber Liquidators, the top-selling flooring retailer in America, in Toano, Virginia.
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On an otherwise ordinary Thursday this fall, officers from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raided the corporate headquarters of Lumber Liquidators, the top-selling flooring retailer in America, in Toano, Virginia. Along with agents from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Justice Department, ICE agents were investigating whether the company had imported illegally logged wood products from eastern Russia, the home of the critically endangered Siberian Tiger.

While federal officials have yet to publicly release information on the raid, a new report from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) shows how rampant illegal logging in Russia is threatening the last Siberian tigers that remain in the wild and why the U.S. must hold companies who import illegally harvested wood accountable.

The report, "Liquidating the Forests: Hardwood Flooring, Organized Crime, and the World's Last Siberian Tigers," provides a sobering account of how Lumber Liquidators has allegedly been purchasing, through a Chinese supplier, millions of square feet of illegally logged hardwoods originating in the Russian Far East. Such illegal logging is devastating the region's diverse old-growth forests of oak, ash, and other species; hardwood forests that provide habitat for the world's 450 last remaining Siberian tigers. EIA estimates that as much as 80 percent of all timber exported annually from these critically significant Russian forests is illegally logged and traded, facilitated by corrupt or at least ineffective government officials and trafficked with forged documents.

For the report, EIA investigators went undercover, posing as timber buyers to identify the region's worst illegal timber trade actors. Their investigation identified a series of steps taken by Lumber Liquidators' trading partners, from illegal harvesting in Russia to bribery and political favors in China, which Lumber Liquidators knew about. As EIA concluded from its thoroughly documented investigation, "We found that what has now been known for a decade remains true: if you are using wood from the Russian Far East... you have to assume the majority was illegally logged, and is therefore in contravention of new U.S., European and Australian laws."

In the U.S., trade in illegal timber and wood products are banned by the Lacey Act, a century-old law that bans trade in illegally poached and trafficked animals and, after Congressionally passed amendments in 2008, illegally harvested trees and plants. Thanks to the 2008 Lacey Act amendments, companies must document the identity and source of products they import, and fines and penalties can be handed out to those who violate the law. The ICE investigation of Lumber Liquidators was almost certainly based, at least in part, on this important law.

Not only does trade in illegal timber lead to deforestation and threaten critical habitat, but it also fuels underground crime and affects American jobs in the timber industry. The U.S. timber industry estimates annual losses of $1 billion due to decreased exports and depressed prices. After news of the Lumber Liquidators' raid broke, the United Steelworkers, which represents many workers in the forestry and paper industry, called for stronger enforcement of environmental and trade laws.

Strong enforcement of the Lacey Act by the U.S. government will help safeguard the world's imperiled forests and wildlife. In the instance of Lumber Liquidators, the wood under suspicion comes from forests that are critical to the survival of the Siberian Tiger and support the numerous villages and indigenous communities in the region. The forests of Siberia and the Russian Far East are nearly the size of the Amazon and are some of the most biodiverse temperate forests on Earth. Russia's old-growth forests store vast amounts of carbon, and illegal logging releases that carbon pollution, threatening our climate. In fact, deforestation contributes to as much as 17 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

"Liquidating the Forests" presents striking new evidence of the extent and complexity of the illegal timber trade, and the need to address this urgent problem. And while the final outcome of the current federal investigation of Lumber Liquidators will only be known in time, the Sierra Club is encouraged by the administration's decisive investigative actions. Now more than ever, we need full enforcement of the the Lacey Act to protect our climate, environment, and economy by stopping forest destruction and the trade of illegal timber.

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