On the face of it, illegal logging would seem to be a pretty black and white political issue. How could anyone be against prosecuting individuals and companies involved in the plunder of the earth’s forests for illicit profit?

Illegal logging is not only blamed for the destruction of vast ranges of forests, but also for contributing to the demise of a variety of endangered plants and animal species, furthering the thinning of the ozone layer and being economically injurious to reputable wood products firms. Much of the wood illegally logged in countries like Indonesia and Russia finds its way to China. There it is converted into hardwood plywood, flooring, furniture and other wood products, much of which is exported to the United States.

A 2004 report commissioned by the American Forest and Paper Assn. concluded that “up to 10 percent of global timber production could be of suspicious origin and illegal logging depresses world legally harvested wood prices by 7 to 16 percent on average.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) has introduced a bill aimed at curbing the flow of illegally logged wood and wood products into U.S. ports. His Combat Illegal Logging Act of 2007 (S. 1930) would amend the Lacey Act that protects endangered species to prohibit the import, sale or trade of illegally logged wood and wood products in the United States.

“Illegal logging has been giving timber and timber product exports from countries including China an unfair advantage over U.S. companies that are following the rules,” Wyden said. “This bill will help level the playing field for American manufacturers, protect the jobs of the workers they employ and address an illegal logging crisis.”

They say politics makes interesting bedfellows, and Wyden’s bill does just that. The Combat Illegal Logging Act has the fervent support of many industry associations including the AF&PA, the Hardwood Federation, the National Hardwood Lumber Assn. and the Sustainable Furniture Council, plus environmental groups including the Rain Forest Action Network, Sierra Club, Greenpeace and the United Steelworkers.

Bill Sparks Controversy

Not all U.S. wood-related groups are so quick to embrace Wyden’s solution to control illegal logging. In fact, Wyden’s bill has created a new rift in the highly fragmented U.S. wood and wood products arena.

The International Wood Products Assn. has formed a coalition of like-minded associations to combat Wyden’s legislation. It includes the American Home Furnishings Alliance, National Association of Home Builders, National Federation of Independent Businesses, National Lumber and Building Material Dealers Assn. and National Marine Manufacturers Assn. In their view, while its goal is laudable, Wyden’s bill puts too much onus on small businesses involved in the import of wood and wood products to police the world’s forests to prevent illegal logging activities.

In a letter urging Congressmen to “reject” Wyden’s bill, the coalition states, “S. 1930 unfairly increases the liability and administrative burden of small, family-owned businesses that import, distribute and use imported wood products.” The coalition’s letter further argues that Wyden’s bill should be revised to include the “innocent owner” defense set forth in the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000. Without this provision, companies that unknowingly sell wood products alleged to have been made all or in part with illegally harvested woods can be held responsible and face forfeiture of their products.

Compromise Offered

While Wyden’s bill heads toward a Senate vote, his colleague, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), has taken a second look at the House version he is sponsoring, H.R. 1497, to include forfeiture liability protection for businesses that might unwittingly play a role in the illegal wood trade chain.

The IWPA said it is hopeful that Wyden will likewise amend his bill to not only include the “innocent owner” provision, but also to lessen the burdens for legitimate wood importers that properly follow U.S. and international commerce laws.

Updates to this story as they unfold will be posted immediately on www.iswonline.com.

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