Lacey Act - Sometimes Government Gets It Right
    By Hank Campbell | November 17th 2010 12:56 PM | 6 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Hank

    I'm the founder of Science 2.0®.

    A wise man once said Darwin had the greatest idea anyone ever had. Others may prefer Newton or Archimedes...

    View Hank's Profile
    The federal government rarely succeeds in its attempts to legislate what I would call positive things - this is because the government has no power beyond restricting money and every effort to exceed that is met with resistance by constitutional scholars and states.

    A progressive culture like the US wants more government whereas a liberal culture like the US wants freedom, and I would argue the best way to implement both goals is that, rather than attempting positive change (and failing - see American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and Affordable Health Care for America Act) , government stick to punitive actions.

    Progressives in America like punitive actions more anyway, though they don't always know who they are targeting.    Environmental activists often believe they are are the only ones who care about the environment, for example, yet sportsmen, as right wing as they come, care a terrific amount about the environment and donate a large amount of time and money to conservation efforts, they just don't do it for the kind of groups that say woods should be off limits to people and guns should be banned.    Ditto with guitarists, who have long been regarded as enemies by environmentalists because guitars are made of wood and somehow that means deforestation is caused by guitars.

    One recent deviation in that mindset has been Greenpeace, which teamed up with a prominent guitar manufacturer to help insure that wood resources are used properly, not banned, so that future generations have great guitars (see Guns, Guitars And Greenpeace).   The evil corporation, as all corporations are, according to the kookier environmentalists out there, had no business reason to work with anyone - it takes between 300-500 years to get the wood you need for a guitar.  But they care and kudos to Greenpeace for helping promote that.

    One company alone, be it Wal-Mart or Taylor guitars can not do it - instead, they would be penalized for caring due to other companies somewhere doing things illegally and making profits due to lower costs.   We all recognize that people are people and some are going to be good and some bad.   It's that way in government, in environmental groups and in oil companies.   So the government can help with punitive action because that won't hurt the good people, like just charging more taxes for sillier government programs does.  One punitive act, which has done a terrific amount of good though it is over a hundred years old, is the Lacey Act.

    The Lacey Act was introduced in 1900 by Republican Congressman John F. Lacey of Iowa and signed into law by a Republican president.   This was obviously a day when abortion and guns did not make you decide which party you were going to be in and the 'progressives' of that day cared more about societal advancement through science and technology, whereas conservatives cared about the environment and taking a cautious approach to industry.  Go figure.   

    John F. Lacey
    John F. Lacey, Congressman.   Like the environment?  Thank Republicans.

    Originally worded, the Lacey Act(1) made it a crime to ship illegal game across state borders - but since then, the Lacey Act has been amended numerous times and is the foundation for conservation law enforcement.

    In 2008 the Lacey Act was amended again, this time to be the world's first ban on illegal wood.  And guitar manufacturers applauded.

    Now, activists are likely to believe 'illegal' wood means all evil corporations making unpainted furniture - and furniture is a trillion dollar industry and it has a wide variety of personalities running companies so it certainly happens - but most illegal wood is not obtained by logging companies in the US or Canada, it is in Asia, and it is not sold, it is used locally, for fuel; the same situation is in Africa, where nearly ninety percent of all wood harvested is for energy rather than industry, including illegal harvesting.

    The bulk of illegal wood that goes toward industry is, to riff on the term in diamonds, “conflict timber.”   The brutal situations in Burma, Cambodia and Liberia were financed in parts large and small by illegal timber.    How can a US law impact that, you might be asking?  It's true, U.S. manufacturers know exactly where their wood comes from and the U.S. is the largest consumer of finished wood items, but turnover happens and even a company like Wal-Mart, which keeps meticulous records and makes suppliers outline the supply, can't keep up with all of the details about where in Russia some wood came from that got manufactured by a new supplier in China.

    People need toilet seats so Wal-Mart was not flying people to every tree farm to verify its origin.

    But companies like Wal-Mart and U.S. furniture manufacturers knew well before 2008 something was wrong.  They know what lumber costs and when they are getting offers for products far below cost, something was wrong with the system.   But anyone who thinks one or two companies should price themselves out of business by taking a stand is being naive.  The solution was to make the system fair by penalizing everyone.(2)   Punitive.

    Yes, American corporations went to the government to add more laws.  But times have changed since 1900 and this time it took two Democrats, Senator Ron Wyden and Representative Earl Blumenauer, to save the forests.   Essentially what happened was the Lacey Act was amended to remove the 'innocent owner' defense (it already included logging - that amendment was signed into law in 1981 by Republican Ronald Reagan).   Ignorance about origin was no longer a defense and if you could not prove an ownership chain back to the logging of the tree, you were paying penalties.

    That meant the playing field was level for all companies, and even domestic logging, because penalties were too great for any company dealing with the largest market in the world trying to sell what were not 'illegal' goods.    Congress passed it, Pres. Bush signed it.  

    In the two years since, estimates are that illegal logging (as much as 16% of worldwide logging) dropped 40%, and that's just with one country curbing illegal logging.   If China and Europe do the same thing, it would practically disappear, along with a large chunk of the deforestation that isn't happening due to timber farms but is instead the illegal kind.

    Punitive action worked whereas the government throwing money around in more bureaucratic programs, like the Forest Stewardship Council, never did.  

    Sure, that means the next time I buy a guitar it may cost a little more due to a higher cost for something like ebony, but I am okay with that.   My guitars will be around for a hundred years and now the forests will also.

    Just this once, big government, you get a pat on the back.


    (1) He also got laws passed for conservation in Yellowstone National Park, laws to allot funds to native Americans and the Antiquities Act which made it possible to preserve archaeological sites.   Thanks, Republicans!

    (2) It's not all balloons and ponies due to poor wording over time.   Ten years ago, four Americans were charged with importing lobster tails in plastic bags rather than cardboard boxes, which was a violation of a Honduran regulation that Honduras no longer enforced. Yet they were sentenced to 8 years of imprisonment each.   The Lacey Act  is designed to keep Americans from breaking foreign rules when hunting or fishing (e.g. poaching elephants in Kenya) but it is nearly impossible to know every obscure regulation, especially when the country offended says it is not a violation, like bags over boxes.  So, if we want fewer Americans in jails, the solution is not to make real crimes have less punishment, it's not to put people in jail for federal crimes that clearly are not.


    Appreciate the balance in your posts Hank. All too often subjects like this descend into rants between opposing political forces and the heat dissolves the substance of arguments. The historical perspective you put forward here shows how with changing times political parties undergo changing policies.

    We can manage environmental resources much better. It is clear, contrary to what some may say, that governments can introduce valuable legislation towards this end. It would be even better if governments didn't have to introduce so much legislation but utopia is a dream out of reach.

    John, thanks for the kinds words.  The US does a good job, though the more 'zero tolerance' thinking people have about managing resources the worse it looks.  We have less undeveloped land by percentage than Africa, which seems to be regarded as a big forest by American environmentalists yet is nothing of the kind.  

    The reason sportsmen have an unreal level of money and time donations to environmental work is because the appeal is simple - the notion that if we want our grandchildren to go hunting and fishing with us the way we did with our grandfathers, we have to make sure we leave things as we find them.    Given the diversity of people not everyone will just do the right thing so we have to have rules but the people who insist land should never be touched aren't helping the cause either, because no one feels ownership if they never get to visit.
    Less undeveloped land 'by percentage' can disguise what appear huge acreages to much smaller countries than the US, which don't have the luxury of such undeveloped land in such quantity and beauty as is regularly seen in National Geographic, for example
    I hope your environmentalists do a good job looking after all of it, not just the forests

    Given the diversity of people not everyone will just do the right thing so we have to have rules but the people who insist land should never be touched aren't helping the cause either, because no one feels ownership if they never get to visit.

    I used to be involved in environmental groups but walked away several years ago because of the extremist elements within. The natural environment may be much more important to us than we are consciously aware. I'm not thinking about biodiversity here but rather various studies which suggest that spending time in natural environments is restorative and calms troubled souls. There have even been studies suggesting that children with ADD benefit from spending time in green areas, I suggest that they benefit from this because the myriad stimulations of modern life may be exacerbating their condition.

    I can at least conceive of the possibility that we can preserve large tracts of the environment without being thrown back to the Stone Age. The skills and technology already exist, what is lacking is the wisdom of a longer term perspective.

    As I type this I look over a beautiful little valley tucked behind the Gold Coast, Australia. There are wallabies with their young feeding on the lawn, the magpies continue perching on the porch in front of me seeking another feed but I won't feed them because they tend to kill off smaller bird species, we have a brown tree snake living in our roof which is a blessing because it scares off rodents, and in the early hours of the morning when I am finished working the place comes alive with myriads of bird calls.

    A 15 minute drive and I am in the heart of the Gold Coast. An entirely different environment. During the drive I have to be careful not to run over the ducks with family in toe, often crossing the road and here everyone makes sure they have right of way.

    So it does not surprise me that on weekends droves of citizens head for the country. That in itself, an event that happens everywhere, is enough for me to realise that the preservation of natural areas is not a choice but an imperative. We need those natural areas, not just for biodiversity etc, but for our own good.

    It may even be the case that governments will not have to introduce so many punitive measures to enforce environmental protection. A friend of mine owns a software company that serves the agricultural industry. He too was once actively involved in environmental groups. He told me some months ago that there is a change occurring at the corporate level. Corporations are now actively involved in environmental management. Not just as window dressing but as real substantive efforts to reduce environmental impacts.

    As I like to point out to people, especially those who love to demonise corporations, we must remember that those corporations are run by people who also have children, who also want a better world for their children. For all the excesses of various green movements it appears they have provided a valuable service in raising overall awareness of the need for environmental management. In my view many Green groups often go too far, but then that is also true of much corporate behavior. The balance is changing though, corporations are now being run by those people who were raised in those "green consciousness raising" times and the benefits of that are now becoming clear.

    Where you are sounds very nice
    As an environmentalist, I agree that things are changing and we are now in the turning point of ethical corporate structure, as it has finally been recognised that it is better financially, publicly, and for shareholders for corporations to give full environmental consideration to what used to simply be referred to as 'growth', since it could no longer be seen as growth by the next generation if it also did irreparable and expensive damage, and that is unlikely to change, IMHO

    Must disagree. This is a massive headache. Most China manufacturers do NOT know where their wood came from, other than from a specific dealer who bought some from a wholesaler or importer who bought from a guy who bought from the guys who logged the trees. And, the one dealer doesn't handle all the types of woods you need double or triple that supply chain.
    Plus, it's lumber our factory is buying - bundles of boards. How do we know whether this lot came from that load of logs or those logs over there? Sawmills sort by type and size, not specific logging contracts. Plus, the whole thing is done in non-connected China with two major languages and a bunch of local ones.
    I've been working three weeks trying to exhibit due care on a few thousand wooden boxes. The Chinese look at us like we're loonies. They have no idea of their own country's logging laws. How am I to know? Genus, Species, Country of Origin? Rubberwood / China.
    Gibson Guitar was raided by the Fish and Wildlife people! Took their computers. How are you supposed to continue operating your business after they take your computers? This is too much for too little benefit.