What is the Lacey Act?
Enacted in 1900, the Lacey Act is one of the United States’ oldest wildlife protection laws. Named after its champion, Congressman John Lacey, the law was originally passed to address the overhunting of game birds.
The Lacey Act made it a federal crime to “import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire, or purchase in interstate or foreign commerce any wildlife that was taken, possessed, transported, or sold in violation of any law or regulation of any State or in violation of any foreign law.” Under the Lacey Act, it is also illegal to mislabel wildlife shipments, bring injurious species into the country, and import live wildlife under inhumane conditions.
The Lacey Act has been amended several times since 1900 to include a broader range of species, such as amphibians, reptiles and all fish and wildlife covered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).
In May 2008, Congress passed a landmark amendment to the Lacey Act that banned trading illegally sourced plants or plant products, including timber, wood, and paper. The amendment was supported by a coalition of environmental, industry, and labor groups seeking to curb the illegal logging trade and protect the U.S. forest sector.
The 2008 amendment significantly increased responsibility along the timber supply chain, particularly for importers. The amendment holds importers of plants or plant products responsible for ensuring that imported plants or plant products are legally sourced. Importers must exercise due care to ensure that the plant or plant produce was not taken, harvested, possessed, transported, sold or exported in violation of an underlying law in the U.S. or in any foreign country. Additionally, importers are required to declare certain plants or plant products at the time of import and provide information including the scientific name, quantity, value, and country of harvest origin.
What does “illegally sourced” mean?
To constitute a Lacy Act violation, wildlife must be taken, harvested, possessed, transported, sold, or exported in violation of an underlying law in the U.S. or a foreign country. Then, it must be traded in the U.S. interstate or foreign commerce.
The violation of the foreign law does not need to be committed by the person charged with the Lacy Act violation. Violations can include taking wildlife from protected areas, taking wildlife without a proper permit, or failing to pay proper royalties or export fees.
The underlying foreign law does not need to be a criminal law or a law that is regularly enforced, and the foreign law may be interpreted by U.S. courts.
Understanding the Lacey Act whistleblower provisions
In 1981, a whistleblower reward provision was added to the Lacey Act. The whistleblower provision authorizes the Departments of Interior, Commerce, Treasury, and Agriculture to pay monetary rewards to persons who disclose original information concerning wildlife crimes that result in successful enforcement actions. The Department of Agriculture is also authorized for provide rewards for whistleblowers under the plants provision.
U.S. citizenship is not required to be a whistleblower, and whistleblowers may collect rewards for both civil and criminal penalties. However, the Lacey Act does not mandate minimum or maximum percentages of the collected proceeds that whistleblowers can be awarded.
The Lacey Act is an important tool in combatting wildlife trafficking
The Lacey Act has long been one of the most powerful U.S. laws for fighting wildlife trafficking. According to former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Jamie Rappaport, the Lacey Act “had an immediate impact on the rampant commercial exploitation of wildlife by giving game wardens a powerful enforcement tool” leading to “…a century of law enforcement contributions to protecting wildlife resources.”
Recently, the Lacey Act has also played a major role in Operation Crash, an investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Department of Justice into the trade of rhinoceros horn and elephant ivory that has resulted in 38 convictions, more than $2 million in fines, and almost $8 million in forfeitures and restitutions.
Studies suggest that the 2008 expansion of the Lacey Act has also played a role in reducing the import of illegal timber into the U.S. A 2014 study by the United States Forest Service found a significant reduction in imports of tropical lumber and hardwood plywood from several high-risk countries since the Lacey Act amendment took effect and an increase in average prices for those products.
A 2015 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that imports of illegal timber had decreased between 32 and 44 percent since the amendment was passed and that the law had significant impacts on high-risk regions. In Indonesia, for example, the report found that “most imports of paper from Indonesia now have legality verification and come from plantations rather than natural forests.”
The Lacey Act has also facilitated several high-impact enforcement actions related to timber imports. In the largest Lacey Act fine to date, Lumber Liquidators was fined over $13 million in 2015. The fine was the result of Lumber Liquidator’s illegal importation of hardwood flooring, much of which was manufactured in China from timber that had been illegally logged in far eastern Russia, in the habitat of the last remaining Siberian tigers and Amur leopards in the world.
Additionally, in 2012, Gibson Guitar Corp. entered into a criminal enforcement agreement to resolve allegations that the company violated the Lacey Act by illegally purchasing and importing ebony wood from Madagascar and rosewood and ebony from India.