By Jeff Manning

The Oregonian

Four years of investigation into the illegal timber trade in West Africa led an environmental group to the doorstep of Roseburg Forest Products, one of the Oregon’s largest and oldest timber companies.

In a study to be released soon, the Environmental Investigation Agency claims tens of millions of Americans have been exposed to illegally-­sourced timber “because of the negligent role of the manufacturer and the complicity of the American importer.”

The manufacturer and the importer are Roseburg Forest Products and Evergreen Hardwoods of Mercer Island, Washington, respectively.

The allegation has prompted an investigation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A Roseburg official said executives at the Springfield-based timber company didn’t know of the environmental group’s report until receiving a phone call from an agent of the Homeland Security Investigation division of ICE on March 11.

Roseburg has used wood from the okoume tree, found only in the Congo Basin in West Africa. Roseburg used veneer from okoume harvested in the countries of Gabon and the Republic of the Congo to make its Breckenridge home siding, which was sold at some of the best-known home products retailers in the country, including, until recently, Home Depot.

Roseburg Forest Products spokeswoman Rebecca Taylor said Monday that Roseburg is not a focus of the probe. The company claims it is assisting federal agents investigate Evergreen Hardwoods and Cornerstone Forest Products, the Seattle-area wholesalers that sold the veneer to Roseburg.

The Environmental Investigation Agency will be offering video to bolster its claims when the report is released, likely next week.

Officials from both Roseburg and Evergreen told investigators from the environmental group that they relied on promises from their partners that they were in compliance with the applicable statutes. A federal law known as the Lacey Act dating back to the Teddy Roosevelt administration prohibits trafficking in endangered animals.

The act was expanded in 2007 to include threatened plants and trees, a move that was led by U.S. Rep. Earl ­Blumenauer and U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, both of Oregon. They did so to protect American timber operators from foreign competitors, who often didn’t have to worry about environmental protection.

The expanded Lacey Act makes it unlawful to import or trade timber products logged or sold in violation of local, foreign or international law.

Blumenauer said he’s not familiar with anything about the allegations against Roseburg Forest Products. But the Lacey Act expansion has been “fabulously successful” in cutting the amount of illegally harvested timber in the U.S., he said.

“It’s become clear that behind the deforestation of the planet are some of the world’s worst people, poachers, terrorists; they run roughshod over indigenous peoples. …” Blumenauer said. “You have Americans buying this stuff, enabling the bad behavior, it fills me with outrage.”

The Environmental Investigation Agency concentrated its work in the Congo basin, the second largest tropical forest in the world after the Amazon. The vast forest is key habitat for elephants, nearly all the great apes and other African wildlife.

A Chinese conglomerate called the Dejia Group drew much of the environmental group’s attention. Dejia manages 1.5 million hectares of tropical forest in Gabon and the Republic of Congo. The study accuses Dejia of routinely overharvesting, of not paying its local taxes and bribing local officials.

“The group has continuously broken the most fundamental forest laws, has turned timber trade regulations upside-­down and has diverted millions in unpaid taxes to local governments,” the environmental group’s study alleged.

Dejia single-handedly produced 36 percent of all of the timber exported from Gabon and the Republic of Congo. Most of that timber was okoume, which has become popular with the timber industry because it grows quickly and boasts an attractive pinkish-­red color and distinctive grain.

But okoume is a victim of its own good looks and the frenzied pace of logging in the Congo basin. The species is now listed as “vulnerable.”

Evergreen Hardwoods is the single largest wholesale customer of Dejia in the U.S., according to the report. It has been buying timber from Dejia for 10 years.

The report quotes an Evergreen Hardwood official talking of the difficulty and hassle of complying with federal statutes, especially the Lacey Act. Filling out the correct federal documents is the key, he said.

“The way this amendment (to the Lacey Act) is written, the more paperwork you have the better,” an Evergreen official told undercover investigators from the environmental group. “I don’t care, I don’t even want to know. I’m not worried that you’re stealing from a national park. I don’t care. I just need to have the documentation in case somebody accuses me and wants to look.”

Multiple phone calls to Evergreen were not returned.

On Monday, the companies involved or formerly involved in the okoume trade took pains to explain their situation.

Home Depot stopped carrying Roseburg Forest Products’ Breckenridge siding in 2017 after the company adopted a new policy that it would no longer sell any products from a “high-conservation-value forest,” said company spokeswoman Christine Cornell.

The Congo basin qualifies, Cornell said.

In a press release, Roseburg argued that its compliance program is robust. The company hired supply chain experts DoubleHelix Tracking Technologies Pte Ltd., which traveled to West Africa to conduct risk assessments and compliance audits of both Cornerstone and Evergreen. The results of both audits were favorable, with no findings of Lacey Act violations, Roseburg officials said.

Roseburg employs about 3,500, many of them at its Oregon facilities in Riddle, Dillard, Coquille, Medford, North Bend and Springfield.

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