On August 6, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced its first Lacey Act prosecution involving illegal logging in the United States. This is good news and sends a powerful message to the timber industry at home and abroad: The cost of breaking the law outweighs the potential short term gains from illegal logging.
The owner of J&L Tonewoods, Harold C Kupers, and three other men identified as “tree thieves” by the DOJ have been indicted and arrested for stealing precious big leaf maplewood from Washington’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Wood buyer Kupers and his company J&L Tonewoods are charged with receipt of stolen property as well as seven violations of the Lacey Act for purchasing the illegally cut wood and then selling and transporting it to other companies. The three tree cutters are charged with theft of government property and damaging government property for the illegal harvest of maple trees. According to the indictment, the men would seek out “figured maple,” which is particularly valuable for musical instruments due to its unique and beautiful patterns, and cut trees mostly at night in order to avoid being caught in the act. The indictment states that “one of the sites where the maple cutter defendants cut and removed maple was known as the ‘slaughterhouse’,” due to the extent of reckless clandestine cutting taking place.
The indictment further notes that “between 2011 and 2013, the Tonewood defendants earned revenues in excess of $800,000 dollars for the sale of maple…” As Assistant U.S. Attorney Seth Wilkinson explained, “The message is that you can’t turn a blind eye, you can’t buy products that you know are stolen, make a huge profit off it and then just say, ‘I didn’t know what I was doing’.”
The Lacey Act was originally passed in 1900 to address illegal wildlife poaching and trafficking. In 2008, it was amended to also include plants, including illegally logged trees and their products. The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) led this effort by coordinating a broad coalition of groups that included environmental organizations as well as private sector companies to advocate for the law’s amendment. The United States was the first country in the world to pass a law against illegal timber trade, and other regions and countries have since followed suit. The European Timber Regulation (EUTR) entered into effect in 2013 and Australia passed its Illegal Logging Prohibition Act in 2012. Japanese lawmakers have recently expressed their intent to introduce a law against illegal timber imports in the course of next year. In the United States, violations of the Lacey Act are punishable by up to five years in prison, fines can reach up to a $250,000 for individuals and $500,000 for companies.
In the first Lacey Act case, concluded in 2012, Gibson Guitars acknowledged having obtained illegally harvested ebony from Madagascar, after the DOJ carried out raids at the company’s headquarters in 2009 and 2011 and pursued a federal investigation. Resulting fines and other penalties imposed on Gibson Guitars for violation of the Lacey Act amounted to $600,000 USD.
A federal investigation is currently pending against flooring retailer Lumber Liquidators for violating the Lacey Act by importing illegally logged wood from the Russian Far East via China. Lumber Liquidators has indicated that the DOJ is pursuing criminal charges. The company has already set aside $10 million dollars for liabilities resulting from the case. This does not include losses from reputational damage and decline in shareholder value. Shares have been plummeting since the federal investigation started in 2013 and four high level officials, including the CEO, have resigned from the company this year.
To see the Lacey Act enforced is encouraging, but we need to see more decisive action by the U.S. authorities, including against illegal timber imported into the United States from other parts of the world, such as Russia, Peru, or the Congo Basin where illegal logging continues unabated. In Peru, the World Bank has estimated that 80 percent of logging is illegal. EIA has documented in detail the large scale fraud and corruption that continues to plague the Peruvian forest sector. Yet, the United States continues to import timber from the Peruvian Amazon that has been deemed illegal, despite written commitments from both countries to stop the illegal trade.
Illegal logging is not only decimating the world’s forests, it is routinely associated with severe human rights abuses, and members of local communities often pay with their lives if they try to defend their land against unlawful intruders. Illegal logging and global forest crime has an estimated worth of $30 to $100 billion U.S. dollars annually, comprising 10 to 30 percent of the total global timber trade. When illegal timber enters the U.S. market, consumers in the United States become unwitting financiers of this illicit trade. The Lacey Act is a powerful tool to curb the illegal destruction of the world’s remaining forests; but only if the responsible agencies are sufficiently resourced and the law is fully enforced can it effectively stop forest crime.