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Bill in Congress seeks Lacey Act changes

Could ease reporting burden on furniture

A proposed bill to amend the federal Lacey Act could significantly ease the regulatory burden on importers of wood furniture.

While still in the early stages, the bill has been gaining support in the House of Representatives. Its opponents, however, say that the bill undermines the Lacey Act and would render it ineffective.

H.R. 3210 - also known as the RELIEF Act, for Retailers and Entertainers Lacey Implementation and Enforcement Fairness Act - was proposed in October by Reps. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif.

While seats with wood frames and accent items are currently the only furniture items affected, the Lacey Act is expected to broadly cover wood furnishings. The new act aims to limit the scope of new provisions of the Lacey Act signed into law in 2008. Those amendments created a requirement for importers to declare the species and country of origin of plant or plant products, including wood.

For items like furniture, the bill would limit the declarations requirement to solid wood, eliminating declarations for non-solid parts like a particleboard back of a wood dresser.

H.R. 3210 also would reduce penalties for "innocent owner" first offenses to a civil penalty of no more than $250. Penalties for violating the act as written can include up to a $250,000 fine and five years in prison.

Additionally, the RELIEF Act has a grandfathering provision that exempts plants or plant products imported or created before May 22, 2008.

The American Home Furnishings Alliance is supporting the RELIEF Act, mostly due to the establishment of the "innocent owner" provision, which draws a clear line between those who unknowingly run afoul of a foreign law and those who knowingly traffic in illegal material, according to AHFA Vice President Bill Perdue.

"AHFA is absolutely against illegal harvesting of wood and has gone to great lengths in our Eco3Home program to provide a clear roadmap for our members when it comes to sourcing options," Perdue said.

"It is important that we fully understand the necessity of an ‘innocent owner' provision. It doesn't absolve companies from their responsibilities in sourcing globally, but it does provide a safe harbor for companies that have exercised due care," he said.

In a Nov. 16 conference call, several American forest products industry and conservation group representatives discussed H.R. 3210 legislation, saying the Cooper-Blackburn bill would ruin Lacey's ability to protect the environment.

Andrea Johnson, forest campaign director with the watchdog Environmental Investigation Agency, said that limiting the act to solid wood and not including paper and plywood declarations would exclude a vast majority of wood entering the U.S., killing the 2008 amendments.

The proposed civil penalty would also be too low to be a deterrent to violators, she said.

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