U.S. Lacey Act Protects Rare Trees

Oct 8, 2019

In this month's installment of Field Notes, Scott Bowe of Kemp Station discusses how the Lacey Act protects rare trees around the world.

We can all appreciate the beauty of wood. Aesthetically by its color and grain and scientifically by its carbon negative environmental footprint. Substituting wood for non-renewables is wise choice for consumers. Last week I had the opportunity to see some beautiful wood samples on the UW-Madison campus in the USDA Forest Products Laboratory Wood Collection. The Lab’s wood collection represents some 25,000 tree species with more than 100,000 wood blocks. Many of the wood samples have backing, which is a herbarium collection of leaves and flowers. This backing allows for a second means of tree identification using tree foliage from the same tree the wood sample was taken. The Forest Products Lab has the second largest wood collection in the world, second only to a collection in Holland.

Not all species are created equally. Some are valued for their unique beauty and can be extremely expensive. Some of these species are rare, which drives up their value. Simple supply and demand. When a particular species is rare, there is a risk of overharvest. To protect against this, countries around the world have passed laws making it illegal to harvest certain tree species. The United States implemented the Lacey Act of 1900, which prohibited interstate trade in illegally taken wildlife, fish, and plants. The primary focus of the Lacey Act was on wild game and birds. In the last century, there was a significant trade in bird feathers for women’s hats, which was detrimental to certain domestic bird species.

The Lacey Act was amended in 2008 expanding its protection to a broader range of plants and plant products. It is illegal to import into the United States plants, including wood, that have been illegally harvested contrary to federal law, state law, indian tribal law, or foreign law. For example, if wood from a tree has been harvested in violation of the law, that wood would be seized by US Customs officials. Another aspect of the updated Lacey Act requires documentation called a plant and plant product import declaration, which lists the genus, species, and country of harvest of every plant found in commercial shipments.

A friend and colleague of mine teaches wood identification courses for U.S. and foreign custom officials, so they are able to quickly identify wood species that people are trying to ship illegally. For example, they may try to ship a banned species such as Rosewood from Madagascar, and label the contents of the shipping container as common legal species. The Lacey Act works in conjunction with the CITES database, a list of animals and plants banned from trade. CITES stands for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, a multilateral treaty. If you google CITES, you will find a database and checklist list of banned species.

You might remember the news story about the Gibson Guitar Company, which was raided by federal authorities in 2009 and 2011. Federal prosecutors seized wood from Gibson facilities, alleging that Gibson had purchased smuggled Madagascar ebony and Indian rosewood, both CITES listed species. Gibson initially denied wrongdoing then agreed to a criminal enforcement agreement with the Department of Justice, admitting to violating the Lacey Act. Gibson paid a fine of $300,000 in addition to a $50,000 community payment, and to abide by the terms of the Lacey Act in the future.

Another well-known Lacey Act violation involved Lumber Liquidators in 2016. It was fined $7.8 million in criminal fines, $969,175 in criminal forfeiture, and more than $1.23 million in community service payments for illegal lumber trafficking. The sentence also included five years of probation, and additional government oversight. The U.S. Department of Justice said it was the largest financial penalty ever issued under the Lacey Act.

There are many beautiful domestic wood species and many abundant tropical wood species that we can use without violating the Lacey Act. Use and enjoy wood in your home, truly a beautiful and sustainable natural resource.

For Field Notes, this is Scott Bowe from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Kemp Natural Resources Station.

Web Photo Caption:  The wood sample shown is Dalbergia spruceana - common name Amazon Rosewood. It is a “lookalike” species with Dalbergia nigra - common name Brazilian Rosewood. Brazilian Rosewood has been listed in CITES since 1992. In 2017, all Dalbergia species were listed. Even though some Dalbergia species are abundant, they are very difficult to distinguish from one another.  All Dalbergia species were listed to protect the rare species such as Dalbergia nigra.