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A barge loaded with timber from Kalimantan in Indonesia, one of the world’s major sources of tropical timber.

A barge loaded with timber from Kalimantan in Indonesia, one of the world’s major sources of tropical timber.

Budi Nusyirwan/Flickr

U.S. law deterring illegal wood imports, but global impact unclear

A 2008 law aimed at reducing U.S. imports of products from illegal logging appears to be working, concludes a new analysis—but it may not necessarily be helping protect the world’s forests.

For more than 100 years, a law called the Lacey Act has served as America’s premier weapon in the fight against the illegal trade of plants and animals. The original Lacey Act of 1900 created penalties for selling or importing poached wildlife and was instrumental in curbing markets for feathers and hides from overexploited bird and mammal populations. Congress later expanded the law to include plants, and in 2008 lawmakers amended it to cover, for the first time, plant products. Whether it’s wood, paper, or pulp, any product containing illegally obtained tree material is now banned from import and interstate trade. The goal is to reduce demand for illegal timber products and thus discourage illegal logging.

At least part of that goal is being met, concludes Jeffrey Prestemon, a research forester with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. He analyzed data on imports of tropical lumber and hardwood plywood from a list of nations known to have problems with illegal logging, including Bolivia, Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Peru. He found that the price of wood products from those nations often increased—and the quantity of U.S. imports dropped—between 1989 and 2013. That suggests enforcement of the Lacey Act, which can include paperwork checks and using genetic tests to identify protected tree species, is making business harder for shady firms, he says. “Foreign suppliers or importers into the United States have found it too risky to bring some production into the U.S. market,” he says. “Prices increased about 30% or 40% from some of these suspected source countries, and quantities dropped by double that amount.” The study appears in the January issue of Forest Policy and Economics.

Although the Lacey Act appears to be reducing U.S. imports of problematic timber, Prestemon notes that doesn’t mean the illegal logging problem is solved, because shady exporters may be taking their products to other nations with laxer regulation. “Maybe U.S. consumers can feel better that they’re not consuming illegally obtained material,” he says. But “you can’t necessarily think that this meant that there’s less illegal logging going on. That’s a different study—and those studies need to be done.”