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.