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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

U.S. Law Restricting Trade in Rare Species Under Fire

Air Date: Week of

Hauling logs inside Masoala National Park, Madagascar (2009). Workers are paid about $4 a day, while timber barons receive most of the profit from sales of illegal hardwoods to China, Europe and the U.S. (Toby Smith/Environmental Investigation Agency)

The Lacey Act is among the oldest wildlife protection laws in the country. It was designed at the turn of the 20th century to regulate the trade of rare animals across state lines. In 2008, lawmakers changed the act to give plants the same protection as animals. Gibson Guitars was the first offender caught with illegally logged wood and now, some lawmakers are rethinking the statute. Host Bruce Gellerman speaks with the Environmental Intelligence Agency’s Andrea Johnson.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. The Lacey Act is our nation’s oldest wildlife protection law. President McKinley signed it into law back in 1900 to regulate the trade of rare animals across state lines. Over the years the Lacey Act has been amended many times, and in 2008 it became a federal crime to trade in illegally harvested plants.

That includes exotic and endangered hardwood trees. A year after the Lacey Act was amended to include these forest products, armed U.S. Marshals made their first bust under the new statue. It was at the factory of the legendary Tennessee-based Gibson Guitar Company. The raid was ridiculed by the Tea Party, which called it government regulation run amok, and it gave voice to this protest song:

[MUSIC: The government cave-in to Gibson guitar, and automatic weapons it was so bizarre. I didn’t believe they would go that far, they were up to no good… [Keep Your Hands Off Our Wood, An Original Song for Gibson Guitar (©2011 Steve Bryant]]

GELLERMAN: But in Madagascar, which has largely been deforested, musicians also took to the stage and held a concert rally to protest illegal logging.

A rosewood tree is cut down inside Masoala National Park, Madagascar (2009). (Toby Smith/Environmental Investigation Agency)

[MUSIC: Razia Said Concert for Masoala Rain Forest - 2011]

GELLERMAN: Madagascar's hardwoods come under the Lacey Act, and the Justice Department charges that's where Gibson Guitar got illegal wood for their instruments. Now, two Tennessee lawmakers have introduced a bill to amend the law and shield Gibson from prosecution. Andrea Johnson has been probing the guitar company case – she's Director of Forest Campaigns for the non-profit group The Environmental Investigation Agency.

JOHNSON: We were invited in 2009 by the National Park Service of Madagascar. There had been a huge influx of illegal loggers. We went on the ground; we looked at the situation. We, then, traced the trade - we looked at where is this stuff going because nobody in Madagascar is building their houses out of ebony and rosewood. This is one of the poorest countries on earth, and 100 percent of the illegal wood that is coming out of those national parks is for the export trade.

GELLERMAN: Did it come here? Did it go to Tennessee? Did it go to the Gibson Company?

Rosewood and ebony logs await transport in a logging camp inside Masoala National Park, Madagascar (2009). Because these species are too dense to float, three to five additional trees of lighter wood must be chopped down for each log exported. (Toby Smith/Environmental Investigation Agency)

JOHNSON: Well, we looked at these trade flows and we found that some of this wood is going to China, and we also found that there is a stream that goes through Europe to Tennessee to Gibson Guitars.

GELLERMAN: Well, we should say that the president of Gibson Guitar adamantly denies the allegations, and in fact, he says he’s not even against the Lacey Act.

JOHNSON: Yes. This is true. This is what he has taken to saying in public - that he doesn’t oppose the Lacey Act, that it’s a good law, it just needs to be fixed. And, you know, it’s an interesting concept that when you are investigated under a law, your response - instead of going through the due process that the American justice system affords you to prove your innocence - you instead "fix" the law so that you, presumably, would not be subject to it again.

You know, it’s been a surreal few months. This is, in many ways, an example of an environmental problem that we have found a somewhat successful approach for. There have been good studies showing that illegal logging has decreased by almost a quarter in the last decade.

GELLERMAN: Well, there’s a Tennessee Democrat and a Tennessee Republican who have introduced a bill that would change the Lacey Act.

JOHNSON: The bill that has been introduced - it’s called the Relief Act - we call this the ‘Relief for Illegal Loggers Act’ - you know, the bill is a response to a huge outcry on the part of the music industry, and not only sort of instrument makers, but individual musicians.

GELLERMAN: So, how do they want to change the law?

JOHNSON: The law would do a few things. One of the changes it would make would be to exempt products that were manufactured or wood that was imported prior to the passage of the 2008 amendment. That’s a particular concern for the music industry.

GELLERMAN: So, everything before 2008 that was imported would be exempt - grandfathered in.

Rosewood logs awaiting export in 2009 from northeastern Madagascar, a hotbed of illegal logging. (Toby Smith/Environmental Investigation Agency)

JOHNSON: It would grandfather in wood from before 2008. Then, it would dramatically reduce the penalties for first time offenders to only 250 dollars. Right now, if the government can knowingly prove that a company imported illegal timber, they can receive fines up to half a million dollars and even jail time.

GELLERMAN: Then this would set the limit at 250 dollars.

JOHNSON: $250 dollars, it’s like a speeding ticket, you know? And fourth, this bill would prevent basically any seizure and confiscation of goods, even if they’ve been proved to be stolen by the government.

GELLERMAN: So the government couldn’t come in and seize and confiscate illegal wood.

JOHNSON: No. It essentially eliminates, in practice, the economic incentives to care about your sourcing because the government no longer would be able to take your products. Even if it could prove that they were contraband.

I mean, I’m a forester myself - I work in the tropics. I believe in, I believe in cutting trees. I think it can protect forests if done right, but the way that forestry is being done in Peru and Indonesia, in Russia, in so many places, is robbing these countries and the communities that live in them of these natural resources, because it’s being done in a way that doesn’t leave any of the benefit in the country itself.

You know, it’s a crime and it’s a shame, and the world is watching the U.S. right now. There are a lot of people wondering if we are going to weaken one of the most universally recognized environmental statutes we’ve passed in the last decade.

GELLERMAN: We’ve been talking about the Lacey Act with Andrea Johnson. She’s Director of Forest Campaigns for Environmental Investigation Agency - it’s a non-profit environmental group. Andrea Johnson, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.



Gibson Guitar CEO Henry Juszkiewicz’s editorial “Repeal the Lacey Act? Hell no, Make It Stronger”:

Musician Razia Said helped organize a concert to publicize illegal logging of rainforests in Madagascar

The Environmental Investigation Agency is a non-profit watchdog group that looks at environmental crime


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