Environmentalists want feds to halt imports of Russian timber that endanger rare tigers

 

McClatchy Newspapers

U.S. consumers who purchase hardwood floors and furniture products made with illegally cut Russian timber unwittingly may be damaging the last remaining habitat of the endangered and noble Amur tiger.

These conclusions are spelled out in a detailed report being released Tuesday by the World Wildlife Fund. McClatchy obtained exclusively the U.S. edition of the troubling report.

The study reveals how loggers in eastern Russia, misusing permits for thinning out diseased trees or just flat-out breaking the law by logging on protected lands, are taking down old-growth Mongolian oak trees and other species that are key to the tiger’s survival. Environmental groups estimate that there are about 450 Amur tigers left in the wild.

The Russian eastern provinces of Khaborovsky and Primorsky border China, and Chinese flooring and furniture manufacturers, who compete with U.S. loggers, furniture makers and flooring manufacturers, are using the illegal wood in products exported to the United States and Europe, the WWF said

This practice threatens the Amur tiger, sometimes called the Siberian tiger, because the Mongolian oak trees, many of them centuries old, play a particularly important role in the food chain on which the tiger depends.

The Mongolian oak drops acorns that are foraged by deer and wild boar on which the tiger preys. With the trees rapidly disappearing, so too is the food source for the animals eaten by the tiger. Additionally, new roads being built by loggers are also leading to poaching of both the rare tiger and its prey.

“U.S. consumers can unwittingly be contributing to this,” Linda Walker, the WWF’s manager of the global forest and trade network in North America, said in an interview.

Other wood species illegally felled and sent to China include Manchurian ash and Manchurian linden. All are remarkably similar to wood grown in the United States and exported to China for use in finished products that are sent back to the United States.

“There is no one expert in the world who can tell from the appearance of the wood that this is a different species,” said Nikolay Shmatkov, the Moscow-based coordinator for forest policy projects in Russia for the WWF.

WWF officials monitoring the logging in the far eastern provinces have been threatened by companies engaged in the illicit trade, he said.

The WWF and other environmental groups are angry that publicly available export data in Russia show that from 2004 to 2011, oak timber exports from Russia to China were anywhere from two to four times the legally allowed levels. Shmatkov estimated from 2007 to 2008 alone, Russian loggers exceeded legal limits in the tiger’s habitat by a stunning 52.9 million cubic feet.

The issue could become a trade irritant with Russia. The practice appears to run afoul of 2008 amendments to the Lacey Act, the sweeping nature stewardship legislation first enacted in 1900. The 2008 amendments require that American companies or individual importers of forest products to ensure that the wood was obtained legally in the country of origin.

The changes mean that U.S. companies are now responsible for compliance with laws in exporting countries, and they are liable for wrongdoing by suppliers or middlemen. It’s not enough to know that the product is coming from China. Importers must now know where Chinese companies with whom they do business are getting their wood products.

The Lacey Act was the subject of headlines last year when iconic guitar maker Gibson was charged with violations for wood it was importing, and the act briefly became a rallying cry for tea party politicians who cited it as government overreach. Gibson and the federal government entered into a deferred prosecution agreement in August, with the company paying a $350,000 fine and pledging to improve its oversight of its wood imports.

“Fully enforcing this U.S. law by investigating highly risky Russian hardwood imports and prosecuting proven violations will send a clear message that the largest consumer of wood products is closing its doors to illegal wood and all its devastating consequences,” said Sascha von Bismarck, executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency, an environmental group that uncovered many of the problems with Gibson’s use of rare hardwoods.

Anecdotal evidence suggests the Lacey Act amendments have leveled the playing field for some U.S. timber companies. The State Department and the U.S. Department of Agriculture both have extensive outreach programs abroad designed to draw attention to compliance with the amended Lacey Act. Shmatkov was on Capitol Hill on Monday to raise awareness about the problem with Russian logging.

Can consumers avoid being accidental contributors to the problem? The WWF’s Walker said consumers should try to do business with companies that tout products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. However, few Russian companies actually have such certification.

“Consumers can purchase FSC-certified flooring or furniture. That is the easiest way to ensure that purchases are not contributing to the degradation of the Russian Far East’s last tiger habitat,” the WWF report said.

Email: khall@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @KevinGHall

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