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03.03.2010
Wood Check
How much wood will a new law chuck?
Changes to the Lacey Act are meant to weaken demand for rare woods, such as these harvested in South America.
Courtesy Environmental Investigation Agency

Guitarists like to be known as bad boys, but last fall’s federal raid on the Gibson Guitar plant in Nashville was one black mark too far. Executing a search warrant in late November, Fish and Wildlife agents were looking for hardwoods, often used in making the company’s swoon-worthy instruments, which now are prohibited under a recent amendment to a century-old law called the Lacey Act.

Originally passed in 1900, Lacey is the United States’ oldest fish and wildlife protection statute that in May 2008 was modified to include new requirements for the importation of certain plants and plant products, including exotic woods. Among other things, importers must now submit a declaration of origin at the time of importation. Though the law, which aims to combat widespread illegal logging, became effective on December 15, 2008, its enforcement is being phased in as quickly as regulating bodies can manage, leaving retailers and distributors to examine everything from furniture and flooring to recycled wood products and appliances with wood trim. Even items accompanied by a paper instruction booklet and those coated with chemicals containing tree cellulose, fiber, or extract will be included.

The amendments to the Lacey Act disallow an innocent-owner defense, meaning importers who were unaware they had purchased illegal items, but who didn’t perform due diligence, would still face penalties of up to $500,000 and prison sentences up to five years. In turn, building owners will seek reimbursement from these distributors for their confiscated materials. The flooring industry has been among the first to see enforcement, and furniture importers have until April to comply. Statistics from nonprofit environmental organization Rainforest Alliance estimate that 13 to 15 percent of hardwood furniture and flooring imported to the U.S. comes from illegally logged timber.

At the Surfaces floor covering trade show last month, Don Finkell, CEO of national distributor Anderson Hardwood Floors, said his company recently implemented a third-party verification process with Rainforest Alliance. According to Finkell, third-party verification is the best way for a retailer or distributor to show that they have met the Lacey Act’s due care standards. The National Wood Flooring Association is also working with U.S. Customs and the Department of Justice to develop the Responsible Procurement Program (RPP), a third-party audit process intended to lead to Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification for companies who participate.

Seeking to dispel myths surrounding the new legislation, the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) recently released a document outlining the misconceptions and realities of the amendment. The report emphasizes that Lacey’s enforcement is fact-based rather than document-based, offering some words for everyone in the design and building industry to live by: “Checking out and trusting your suppliers and the wood they are providing is as important, if not more important, than proper paperwork.”

Jennifer K. Gorsche