Climate Change: Will Lacey Lend a Hand?

Posted on December 6, 2013 by Susan Cooke

The recent tornado in the Philippines and forecasts of severe weather events ranging from floods to fires and drought, not to mention the global loss of 50 soccer fields of forest every minute, have again focused attention on the Climate Change debate.  However, there is little consensus on what to do about it, as evidenced at the recent Warsaw Climate Change Conference and by Japan’s decision to forego participation in the eight year second commitment period (from 2013) under the Kyoto Protocol.  Indeed, one U.S. study indicates that even labeling an energy efficient product as promoting environmental protection can reduce its appeal among some U.S. citizens.  

With little chance that Climate Change legislation will be adopted in the near term, the federal government will have to rely on existing laws and regulations when it seeks to address the issue.  One law that may receive some attention is the Lacey Act, 16 U.S.C. §§ 3371-3378.  First passed in 1900 to prevent poaching of game and wild birds, the Act was later expanded to encompass plants that are not common food crops.  Since 2008, it has included wood products.  

The Lacey Act prohibits the import, transport, sale, acquisition, or possession of illegally harvested timber.  In addition, it requires the preparation of import declarations giving information about the species of wood and country of harvest.  Noncompliance with its provisions is subject to administrative fines, as well as forfeiture of the timber, with forfeiture being enforced on a strict liability basis.  In addition, both civil and criminal penalties can be imposed by a federal court for certain knowing violations or where there is a lack of “due care”.

The federal government has already used the newly expanded Act in an effort to address illegally harvested timber.  In addition to a criminal enforcement settlement agreement between the Justice Department and Gibson Guitar involving the import of Madagascar ebony, there was a federal government investigation in September of two Lumber Liquidator facilities in Virginia concerning wood imported from eastern Russia.  

In the latter case, this effort tapped into public concern about preserving the forest habitat of the Siberian Tiger, an endangered species, and it also had the secondary effect of addressing Climate Change.  When the lack of enthusiasm for tackling Climate Change efforts is contrasted with the public sympathy and favorable publicity for protection of iconic endangered species like the tiger, the Lacey Act may be an interesting addition to the federal government’s Climate Change enforcement arsenal.

And so the real question is what endangered or threatened species in an illegally logged forest is waiting in the wings for face time in the next Lacey Act enforcement effort, and how many soccer fields of forest will that save?