WASHINGTON  — The federal agencies in charge of implementing changes in customs declarations for imported wood products are running behind schedule, and furniture importers may not be held to the new requirements until spring 2009, according to a press release from the American Home Furnishings Alliance (AHFA).

AHFA’s Vice President of Government Affairs Russell Batson has learned that customs officials are not yet ready to provide electronic processing of the expanded declarations, which are required by an amendment in the Farm Bill recently signed by President Bush.

The bill provides U.S. authorities with additional tools for policing the shipment of illegal timber and timber products from abroad. The new provisions are contained in an amendment to the centuries-old Lacey Act and were developed in response to complaints from some foreign governments that the United States was providing insufficient controls over shipments containing suspect wood.

U.S. Customs and the Department of Justice and Department of Agriculture all have a hand in executing the new regulation. “In meetings earlier this month, customs officials indicated that their agency would not be ready to provide electronic processing of expanded declarations by the Dec. 15, 2008, compliance deadline specified by Congress,” Batson reports. “An insistence on that deadline would therefore force millions of wood product entries now using electronic declarations back into a paperwork system, likely causing serious delays at ports of entry.”

Recognizing this, an inter-agency working group is designing a phased-in approach to the new law.  Under discussion is a voluntary compliance period running from December 15 until perhaps April 15, 2009, during which importers could gain familiarity with the new requirements without incurring penalties or delayed processing.

A second phase running from April 15 to August 15 would introduce mandatory electronic declarations, but only for tariff Chapter 44, which includes lumber products, veneer, flooring and miscellaneous products such as picture frames and broom handles.  Federal officials reason that this category of products would present less complex determinations about component wood species and where they were harvested. A third phase beginning in August of 2009 is likely to reach Chapter 94, which covers wood furniture, upholstered furniture, mattresses and many components of those products.  Import declarations would have to specify any species of wood that may be contained in the product, and any countries that may be the source of such wood.  “This phrasing is designed to allow the over-reporting of species and source countries in cases of uncertainty and should also lend itself to a checklist approach,”  Batson said.

Whether these declarations will have to include information on the quantity and valuation of wood is still under discussion.  “One source at the Department of Agriculture believes that any valuation information should be of the total product rather than the component wood, which should equate to the valuation input that is required in current declarations,” Batson added.

The three agencies plan to release more formal guidance about the law sometime in October. Based on this information and on consultations with import specialists, AHFA will prepare a compliance toolkit for its membership.

“Many of our member companies took the opportunity to contact their elected officials as the Lacey Act was being debated in 2007 and 2008, and the final version passed by Congress was considerably improved from the bill as it was originally introduced,” Batson said. “Our members are continuing to relay their concerns to lawmakers, because input from Congress can help steer the agencies toward workable enforcement policies.”

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