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Illegal-logging bill misses mark

Quiz anyone about the phrase “illegal logging” and odds are he or she will mistakenly respond that the rogue corporations are cashing in on a protected resource and that trade of illegally sourced wood products is unfairly undercutting the domestic job market.

Here are the facts. Commercial logging is not the primary source of forest destruction (instead, think land clearing for agriculture and ranching). Furthermore, studies have shown time and again that most illegally harvested wood never enters into international trade. These facts are a credit to the due diligence of the small, family businesses that constitute the imported wood products industry and the great work on the ground being done by foreign governments and through U.S. government overseas capacity building initiatives.

The imported wood products industry abhors illegal logging and has spent significant time and resources supporting initiatives to combat this practice. The family businesses that import and use imported wood products in their U.S. manufacturing facilities understand the number one goal is to keep forests sustainably managed as forests, not converted to farms and ranches. Our industry is proud of a long history of importing quality goods that complement, not replace, U.S. manufacturing jobs. In fact, the high market demand for these imported woods is supporting hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs throughout the supply chain from our nation’s ports, through our distribution channels and to our local woodworking shops.

It is unfortunate that companion bills by Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Earl Blumenauer, Oregon Democrats, place undue responsibility on small family businesses to enforce foreign laws, makes U.S. customs regulations more complex and provides no protection for innocent owners. It is anti-small business and an anti-competitive swipe at a community engaged in fair trade. If passed as written, the legislation could lead to harmful and ironic consequences — lost ground in the fight against illegal logging while harshly impacting U.S. jobs.

Under the provisions of these bills, the entire supply chain handling imported plant material, which includes many small U.S. family businesses, is held responsible for illegal acts overseas — violations that they would have no reasonable expectation to know about, much less the underlying laws that may exist in all foreign countries.

Presently, foreign governments issue documents, permits, and paperwork that allow products to be traded legally under international and national laws and regulations. The U.S. government accepts those documents as legal upon entry at our nation’s borders. Under the proposed legislation, that will no longer be enough and the small businesses of our industry must somehow audit a foreign government’s issuance of those documents.

The legislation also asks our industry to augment an already complex and bureaucratic process with more documentation — but offers no assurance that such documentation will keep small businesses from prosecution.

Concessions and amendments could be made to this well-intended legislation to make it more palatable for our industry, but will deputizing small businesses to enforce foreign laws and creating more layers of paperwork really stop forest destruction?

To save forests, we must face their biggest threat, which is land conversion in developing countries by poverty-stricken residents trying simply to survive. The World Bank noted that 90 percent of the 1.2 billion people who live in extreme poverty are so desperate that they see no future in forest management. Instead, they choose to clear-cut and burn their forests for agricultural purposes and for fuel wood — life’s basic necessities. Mongabay.com, a leading online rainforest environmental resource, notes, “Cattle ranching is the leading cause of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. This has been the case since at least the 1970s. … However, today the situation may be even worse.”

Forests need to remain forests and the best way to do that is to provide economic incentives to countries that sustainably manage. Using tropical forest products is the best tool in our kit to promote forest health, encourage legal trade, and promote economic development in poverty stricken nations.

The benefits will also be seen in the U.S. marketplace and our employment numbers. In 2006, over $23 billion worth of wood and wood products entered the U.S., a 38 percent increase over 2003. Furniture and furniture parts imports represented an additional $17 billion in wood products trade in 2006. Housing, flooring, decks, cabinetry, millwork, recreational vehicles, boats, and furniture industries all use imported wood in their U.S. manufacturing facilities.

As market demand for imported woods and other goods rise, so do jobs. From port to highway, producer to distributor, and retailer to end-user, hundreds of thousands of family incomes are made possible by international trade, including legally sourced imported woods.

Forest conservation and legal trade are goals that we all share. Unfair policy pushed by alliances seeking political gains and market advantage should not supersede them.

McClendon is executive vice president of the International Wood Products Association.