U.S. Illegal Timber Imports Are Down, But More Work Remains

Last week hardwood flooring giant Lumber Liquidators pleaded guilty before a federal judge in Norfolk, Virginia to one felony and several misdemeanors for importing illegally sourced wood into the United States. This is great news for the 450 Siberian tigers remaining in the wild, as much of Lumber Liquidators illegal oak flooring was taken from their habitat in the Russian Far East. It is also a strong message that the United States intends to crack down on the illegal timber trade using the Lacey Act, a landmark conservation law that prohibits the import of illegally sourced wood products. Unfortunately, new evidence shows that illegal logging continues at a torrid pace around the globe.

With illegal logging decimating forests around the world and imports of illegal wood products undercutting American businesses, bipartisan majorities of Congress came together in 2008 to combat the illegal timber trade by amending the Lacey Act. Originally passed in 1900 to outlaw trade in poached wildlife, the amendments expanded these protections to plants, making it illegal to import illegally sourced wood products into the United States. This month, Lumber Liquidators became the first major U.S. company to plead guilty to smuggling timber under the Lacey Act. A new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists provides further evidence that these protections are working. According to their estimates, imports of illegal timber into the United States have dropped 32 to 44 percent since the Lacey Act amendments went into effect.

Around the world, more must be done to combat illegal logging. In Southeast Asia, Laos has experienced widespread deforestation, with forests cleared for roads, dams, plantations and mines. In many cases, the government, particularly the military, profits from the flow of the resulting timber into neighboring China and Vietnam. Recently, a leaked report from the World Wildlife Fund found that Laos exported 1.4 million cubic meters of timber to China and Vietnam in 2013, 10 times more than the allowable legal harvest. Some of this wood finds its way to the United States. U.S. imports of wood from Vietnam, virtually all of which is illegally sourced, have more than doubled since 2007. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that 9 percent of illegal wood imported into the United States comes from Vietnam.

Halfway across the world in Romania's Carpathian Mountains, some of Europe's last virgin forests are being threatened by illegal logging. These beech and oak forests are home to lynx, wolves and bears. A 2012 report by Greenpeace Romania found that more than 3 hectares (about 4 soccer fields) of Romanian forest are disappearing every hour, with almost half of the deforestation occurring in protected areas. Now, a two-year investigation by the Environmental Investigation Agency finds that Austrian timber giant Holzindustrie Schweighofer has been profiting from exporting illegal Romanian timber for years. In its investigation, EIA documented multiple instances of illegal timber ending up in Schweighofer's Romanian mills, including purchasing wood harvested illegally in Romanian national parks.

As we wrote recently, strong environmental protections only work if they are enforced. By holding Lumber Liquidators accountable, the United States has put other companies on notice that they must take precautions to source their products legally. This is a welcome step, but clearly there is more work to be done. If you haven't yet, take a minute to thank the Obama administration for enforcing the Lacey Act and ask them to continue combating the illegal timber trade.

This post originally ran on the Sierra Club's blog, Lay of the Land.