Is it an endangered species and who’s making the call?

28_John_EnglishHave you worked with African cherry lately? How about tulipwood, Brazilian rosewood or Parana pine? All of these, plus kauri, Honduras mahogany and African mahogany have at some time found themselves on the endangered list of one of the preservation organizations.

As a shop buyer, there are a couple of perplexing issues here.

First, the definition of "endangered," and related terms such as "at risk," "threatened" or "vulnerable," can be confusing for a woodworker or a woodshop owner. That's in large part because their meanings change depending on who is using them. The disparate usage often leads to questions such as whether the shop is violating any moral or political mores or perhaps even international law. How can we do the right thing when almost nobody understands what the right thing is?

And, secondly, where does one go to find out what species is on a list and does that specific list have either moral or legal consequences or both?

What does endangered mean?

The simplest definition says that a species is endangered if it is at risk of extinction. Unfortunately, that assessment is very subjective. Industries, governments and conservationists all measure risk in different ways and many of their tape measures are marked in financial, rather than ecological, units. While governments can enforce their assessments with laws and environmentalists rely heavily on disseminating information and the effect that has on one's conscience, industries like ours are somewhere in the middle. They have to balance the financial needs of their owners, stockholders, workers, suppliers and customers with the vital needs of a delicate planet. It's not surprising, therefore, that these groups have very different criteria.

So the central question here is: Who decides if a species is endangered?

When it comes to native-grown U.S. species, the Fish and Wildlife Service decides which species are threatened and which are endangered and it does this through its Endangered Species Program. This is a review process that begins with a petition being sent to the agency. Any citizen can generate such a petition; no special expertise or qualifications are required. A petition requests that the Fish and Wildlife Service investigate whether there is any evidence that a species is on the road to extinction. The Fish and Wildlife Service is a non-political body and its decisions are theoretically based on science alone. Even though it is run by humans and is part of a larger political entity (the U.S. federal government) and therefore may be subject to the possibility of a subconscious agenda, the Fish and Wildlife Service track record to date has been essentially impeccable.

While the agency governs homegrown species, some woods from outside the U.S. find their way onto its list. As of March 2008, the Fish and Wildlife Service has listed 1,925 plant and animal species worldwide as endangered or threatened, of which a little more than two-thirds (1,351) are in the U.S.

The chief tool used by the agency in enforcing its decisions is the Endangered Species Act, which was created to protect species from extinction as a consequence of economic growth and development. Officially, the law's function is to "protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend." In other words, it's more about recovery and protection than simple policing.

The Fish and Wildlife Service makes it very easy to find out whether a specific wood species is covered by the law. Go to www.fws.gov/endangered and type in the common or scientific name of the wood you're about to buy. Then click on the little magnifying glass icon and the database will kick out a listing of possible candidates along with their current listing status. The Endangered Species Act lists species as either endangered or threatened and sometimes indicates whether they are "recovering" or "delisted." For the purposes of the law, "endangered" means a species is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. The less immediate word "threatened" means a species is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future. Congress has defined species to include subspecies and varieties, too.

Imported species

Most of the wood species that a woodshop in the U.S. might need to inquire about are imported, rather than domestic species. That means their origins are usually beyond the reach of the Fish and Wildlife Service. The largest international regulation covering endangered or threatened species is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This is an international treaty with 150 member nations and it has been around since 1973. The way it works is that each country sends delegates to regular meetings of various committees (in the case of wood species, it's the plants committee). The convention is administered by the United Nations through its environment program.

CITES (www.cites.org) rates plants according to how endangered they are by listing them in a three-tier table called the CITES Appendices. At this time, there are about 300 plant species in the top bracket, 28,600 in the middle and eight in the lowest. These include all plant species, not just hardwood trees.

A shop owner doesn't have to scroll through 29,000 entries in a database to find a species. In fact, there are relatively few commercial species that are listed (about 50 at this time) and they can be found at www.unep- wcmc.org/species/dbases/CITES-listedtrees.html.

If you're not near a computer, their common names are African cherry, African teak, agarwood, almendro, American mahogany, ayugue, bigleaf mahogany, brasileto (Portuguese), Brazilian rosewood, butterfly palm, Chinese yew, ciprès (French), cocobolo (Spanish), costus, cristóbal (Spanish), feather palm, gavilán (Spanish), gora palm, Himalayan yew, Himilayan may-apple, holywood (aka Palo santo or Lignum vitae), Honduras rosewood, Japanese yew, Lakamarefo palm, magnolia, manarano palm, Mexican mahogany, monkey puzzle, Parlatore's podocarp, Patagonian cypress, pinabete (Spanish), ramin, Ravimbe palm, red sandalwood, red-lemur palm, Satranabe palm, Spanish cedar, cyathea (aka tree ferns) and Voanioala palm.

Buyers who wish to do more research in this area can visit the following resources online. The general-threat status of species can be assessed on the IUCN Red List Web site (www.iucnredlist.org) and information can be found at the International Tropical Timber Organization's site (www.itto.int). There is a list of threatened timber species that are important in trade at the Rain Forest Alliance site (www.ran.org) and Chatham House has good information on laws and regulations with an entire page dedicated to the U.S. at www.illegal-logging.info.

Much of the legislation covering imports of lumber is to be found in the Lacey Act of 2008 and a shop owner can download an incredibly helpful PDF brochure on the law at www.illegal-logging.info.

Another great resource is Fauna & Flora International (www.fauna-flora.org). Unfortunately, there is no way to extract a subset of only lumber species from the Red List (www.iucnredlist.org), so each species of interest would have to be checked separately to see its current status.

Research for this article was provided by Mari Bieri of the United Nation's Environment Program, Dr. Vincent Fleming of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee in Peterborough, and the staff of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue.