Illegal Logging

This is a draft of what I will send for my quarterly article in “Virginia Forest” magazine.

Illegal loggers steal from us in many ways. Sometimes they are literally stealing our trees, but it goes way beyond that. Illegal logging is rarely done according to good procedures that protect the environment and preserve the forest for future generations. The public views the scenes of destruction left by illegal loggers and jumps to conclusion that this is how logging is done. That means that illegal loggers also steal the reputations of honest loggers and landowners who are good stewards of their land and often have been for many generations.

Addressing the problem of illegal logging, however, is not as simple as enacting stronger laws and harsher penalties. In fact, worldwide it is often the theoretically strong laws that are the problem. Of course, in Virginia we still have timber theft. This is a type of illegal logging but at the levels and ways it is done, it is more akin to ordinary crime like burglary or grand theft auto. There are no cases of widespread deforestation caused by illegal logging in the Old Dominion.  Unfortunately, this is not the case everywhere.  In some countries the illegal timber harvest can reach as high a 60-70% of the total.  What accounts for the difference?

The easy answer is that countries where illegal logging is rampant simply lack strict laws or the ability to enforce them. The first part of this statement is often not true. Many developing countries have – on the books – much stricter preservation laws than we have in Virginia. In some places it is just plain illegal to cut down native forests on a wide range of land types. These are often the places most likely to be deforested, as illegal logging targets them first. They understand that government authorities probably cannot protect them and that the off limits status has removed the incentives for local people to pay much attention. The second part of the statement – that they lack the ability to enforce the good laws – is true in areas of deforestation but it is not as remarkable at it seems because it is true everywhere.

Logging is almost always done in relatively out of the way places. Laws are never enough. Even the most active authorities cannot effectively police large areas of forest land.  In Virginia, they really don’t have to.  Landowners, loggers and foresters have incentives to preserve and enhance the forests on their land because they can use and benefit from them. They also know that everyone around suffers if forests, soils, animals and water are wantonly destroyed.  It is obviously true that the authorities protect my forest land in Brunswick County.  But the first lines of defense are my neighbors, friends and even strangers who know that we are all in this together. Virginians protect their own land and those of others because they own the land. We have centuries old traditions of protecting property rights and we all are in the same boat. We protect each other’s stuff.

We also enjoy the use of our land with fewer restrictions than in most other places. We can harvest trees and other forest products within reasonable rules. We can hunt that animals that inhabit our forests and, again within reasonable limits, we can change the way we use our lands. In the final analysis, what most protects the forests of Virginia is the effort of thousands of Virginians who have a stake in the management and use of the forests and the products they produce. In Virginia, hunters, loggers and landowners are preserving and enhancing our forests. Laws work when they are reasonable and when people see the benefits. If you want to preserve and improve forests, you have to let people cut some trees and kill some animals. You have to let them have a stake.

Places that suffer widespread deforestation because of illegal logging often find themselves in this unhappy situation not in spite of but because of strong laws, albeit misapplied. Laws and regulations meant to preserve forests often end up destroying them if they make it difficult or impossible for the people who live in or near the forests to make an honest living from them. If strict rules make it impossible to make an honest profit, some people will make dishonest ones. Even worse, as honest people leave the business and dishonest ones take their place, the whole respect for law as well as the whole idea of stewardship disappears.  The field divides between preservers and destroyers.  Neither is the right way to go.  We need stewards.

If I can be permitted a little immodesty, in America we got it right. That is not to say challenges have disappeared. There is no perfect system and everything must always adapt. But we should never make the quest for the perfect the enemy of the good. The methods of stewardship that have grown up in the United States during the twentieth century work well. The American Tree Farm System and other independent certification systems are doing their jobs.

Most landowners want to do the right thing on their land. People I talk to not only want to take care of the land during their own lifetimes. A major motivation is to leave the land in better shape for future generations.  People are willing.  We need information and guidance both to do the right things and to do things right.  What we don’t need is strict, sometimes incomprehensible, rules that make it difficult for honest people to make honest profits.  We have created a wonderful and sustainable system of forestry in Virginia.  We can be proud of it and we should all work to protect it and try to spread the word as far as we can.