Lawmakers to Halt Illegally Harvested Timber

Congress holds its first hearing on legislation aimed at shutting down the U.S. market for wood that is harvested illegally abroad. Tons of it come into the U.S. daily. But sometimes it takes a lumber detective to figure out what is illegally harvested wood.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And let's report on another resource that people want to make sustainable - wood.

Today, Congress examines legislation aimed that shutting down the U.S. market for wood that is harvested illegally abroad.

NPR's Kathleen Schalch reports on the work of lumber detectives.

KATHLEEN SCHALCH: Have you ever looked at a coffee table or a piece of flooring in a big department store and asked yourself, where does this wood come from? I did.

So I'm here in the Wal-Mart and helping me look at the merchandise is...

Mr. SACHA VON BISMARK(ph) (Environmental Investigation Agency): Sacha Von Bismark.

SCHALCH: And you're with?

Mr. VON BISMARK: I'm with the Environmental Investigation Agency and we investigate illegal logging around the world, from forests to consuming countries. And I'm holding here a picture frame that says quite prominently made in Indonesia on it.

SCHALCH: That alone makes it suspect, he says, because according to the Indonesian government's own estimates, three-quarters of the wood cut there is illegal. Some of it is even stolen from national parks.

Mr. VON BISMARK: Endangering the last orangutan species and robbing Indonesia of $3 billion a year in lost taxes and fees that they can get for that wood.

SCHALCH: I picked up another frame made in China, the kind you can find in any department store. Maybe that one's okay? We don't really know, do we?

Mr. VON BISMARK: No. I mean, it's absolutely not okay. If it's being manufactured in China at the moment, unfortunately the chances are quite high that it is illegal.

SCHALCH: China's biggest source is Russia, where he says up to half the logs exported are illegal and where mafia-run operations are chopping down forests where only about 500 Siberian tigers remain.

In poor countries there are more dire consequences. Activists from around the world have been in Washington recently asking Congress for help.

Here's Anne Tajir(ph) from Papua New Guinea. She says illegal logging destroys indigenous people's homes and livelihoods.

Ms. ANNE TAJIR(ph): They become beggars on their own land.

SCHALCH: Arvy Valentinos(ph) from Indonesia says it spawns lethal mudslides and human rights abuses.

Mr. ARVY VALENTINOS: Starting from intimidation up to murder.

SCHALCH: And Julio Cusaricchi(ph) from Peru says it fuels government corruption.

Mr. JULIO CUSARICCHI: (Through translator): The Air Force planes are the ones carrying illegal wood from the rainforest. Even the military is mixed up in it.

Ms. DONNA HARMAN (American Forest and Paper Association): This is a piece of legislation whose time has come.

SCHALCH: Donna Harman heads the American Forest and Paper Association. Her group has joined environmentalists in supporting a bill to ban imports of illegally harvested wood.

Ms. HARMAN: We think illegal logging depresses the world's legally-harvested wood prices by between seven and 16 percent on average.

SCHALCH: She says that translates into hundreds of millions of dollars in lost exports for her group's members. The bill they're backing would expand what's called the Lacey Act, a century-old law against illegal wildlife trade.

Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer is sponsoring it in the House.

Representative EARL BLUMENAUER (Democrat, Oregon): It's something that has worked very well for over a century for prohibited animals and exotic plants. We think it's a very simple step to extend it to illegally-harvested timber.

Mr. BRENT McCLENDON (International Wood Products Association: It's certainly a feel-good initiative that we all share the ideals of. Who doesn't want to stop illegal logging overseas?

SCHALCH: But Brent McClendon, vice president of the International Wood Products Association, says the burden on importers is too heavy because shipments could be seized, even if the importing companies have no idea that anything is amiss. He says legal and illegal wood can look exactly alike.

Mr. McCLENDON: So ultimately you don't know the origin other than, of course, the country of origin.

SCHALCH: Documents can be forged, he says, and middlemen can lie. McClendon says small businesses shouldn't be deputized to enforce the laws of foreign countries.

But the bill's sponsor, Earl Blumenauer, says companies should ask questions and know who they're dealing with.

Rep. BLUMENAUER: There are some people who know full well that they are importing illegally harvested timber.

SCHALCH: Or at least suspect it. And he says that's who his bill is designed to catch.

Kathleen Schalch, NPR News, Washington.

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