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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration Officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Today's guest: John F. Turner, Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs

John F. Turner
John F. Turner
Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs
July 29, 2003

John F. Turner
Good morning. I am John Turner, privileged to work at the U.S. State Department on issues dealing with international health, environmental, oceans and scientific affairs. Yesterday, with Pres. Bush and Sec't Powell, we launched an exciting initiative to combat the devastating impacts of illegal logging. This bold effort is a part of a comprehensive program put forth by the United States under this administration to conserve forests around the world. I look forward to your questions and thank you for your interest in this critical issue.

Gomez, from NY writes:
This initiative is a start, but why doesn't it directly address the importation into the United States of illegally felled foreign timber?

John Turner
For several months, the Administration has had a strong focus on stopping the flow of illegal timber into the United States market. For example, in cooperation with the Brazilian government, this Administration seized millions of dollars of mahogany that could not be verified as legally sourced. The Department of Justice, U.S. Customs and the U.S. Agriculture Department have greatly increased their monitoring and enforcement efforts to prevent import of this illegal timber. In addition, we will increase training, management, and the capacity in many of the producing countries to help them better control the outflow of illegal timber.

Richard, from Arlington, VA writes:
How does this initiative thwart Indonesia when their deforestation rate is 5.9 million acres per year? And the US imports around 450 million of Indonesian timber products annually. Seems to me like the U.S. is a major contributor to the problem.

John Turner
Your question is an excellent one. Indonesia has suffered from severe deforestation and corrupt practices across its forested landscapes. Working closely with the government of Indonesia and the major non-profits, the U.S. has led law enforcement training in the region. In addition, we have financial assistance through the U.S. Agency for International Development in partnership with the Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund to help the citizens and communities of Indonesia.

Bill, from Annapolis writes:
How will this initiative affect our ability to import timber from other parts of the world, shouldn't we just stop importing trobical timber?

John Turner
Many thanks for your excellent question. Indeed the United States provides a major market for the import of tropical timber. However, we must remember that timber exports are often essential to the economic and social wellbeing of citizens in impoverished areas of the world. Often, people's livelihoods and income to communities depends on these traditional practices. Our efforts will be to help these world neighbors to manage their forests well, to protect biodiversity and watersheds, and to make sure that they can gain income from legal trade long-term.

Bob, from Vermont writes:
I think this is a good program, but I'm wondering how much money we're going to commit to this.

John Turner
The resources for this important program will come from a diverse coalition of governments, non-profits organizations, and industry. Initially, the U.S. government is contributing $15 million from government agencies and a significant amount of expertise, technology, and forest professionals to help with training. We anticipate significant resources to come from other international partners -- both government and non-government.

Angie, from W writes:
I'm a student studying forestry and wanted to know how I could become part of the government's plan to help developing nations -- is there a program you're developing that would send people from the United States to the field where we could teach the local people about which trees are endangered and other good forestry techniques?

John Turner
My hearty congratulations for your interest in becoming personally involved to help conserve forests in developing nations. Although I'm not an expert in this area, I suggest you investigate opportunities in the Peace Corps, and I know there are additional opportunities for volunteers with many fine international conservation groups such as the World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International, the Nature Conservancy, etc. Many thanks!

auvalee, from Brooklyn writes:
who is the tenth president of United State of America and do you by any chance no where the N.Y Metropolitan Museum is located

John Turner
President John Tyler...and the NY Metropolitan Museum is at 1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street. For general information, please call 212-535-7710.

Many thanks for checking in with us. Here's one for you: do you know who is buried in Grant's Tomb?

Sarah, from Peoria, IL writes:
What measures are being taken to ensure that U.S. interests and collaboration with the World Bank and IMF on this initiative are not impeding the growth desired by developing nations?

John Turner
Although the World Bank is an independent organization, we are in a dialogue with them and other multi-lateral development lending banks to ensure that loans and grants do not impact or degrade primeval and natural forests. We are also in a dialogue with other countries, especially European nations, to ensure that other nations follow the U.S. lead in seeing the lending practices meet the highest environmental standards.

Julie, from Chicago writes:
What about the timber coming out of the Russian Far East. I have heard there is a problem with cutting down huge numbers of trees even at night and exporting them around the world and probably into the U.S. What will this initiative do to address this?

John Turner
Excellent question. The forests of the Russian Far East are extremely important and host considerable diversity and wildlife. As a part of this initiative, we have plans to join with other partners including the Russian government, non-profits, and industry to help with training, better management policies, and even utilization of remote sensing via satellites to better attract what's going on in Russian forests.

Cynthia, from Grand Rapids, Michigan writes:
Does illegal logging occur in the U.S.? I thought this was mainly a problem in SE Asia?

John Turner
As your question suggests, I believe there are instances of illegal timbering on public and private lands in the U.S.; however, overall, I think we can be proud of federal and state law enforcement practices which keeps such illegal activity to a minimum. My focus is on the international scene, where the impacts of corruption in the forests is devastating to people involved in wildlife resources.

Matt, from West Virginia writes:
I see that the President's initiative proposes to make a priority, to stop illegal logging in protected areas, what about other areas of the forest? Isn't it a problem in Africa for other areas that are not protected, like in Liberia?

John Turner
The President's initiative is comprehensive and will focus on both protected areas and managed timber areas. However, it was at the suggestion of some of our main non-government partners, major environmental and industry groups, that made a specific appeal to Secretary Powell to make an initial focus on combating illegal logging in protected areas. They felt that this was an area where we could make a difference in the short-term.

Louise, from Tacoma, Washington writes:
What is the plan to ensure cooperation from other countries -- what are the consequences for not complying?

John Turner
Excellent question. Regarding attempts to import illegal timber into the United States, rest assured that U.S. enforcement agencies are prepared to apply serious consequences. In developing countries, the challenge is more complex. Since illegal logging severely impacts local people and the governments of host countries there seems to be strong incentives to improve their practices, strengthen their laws and develop tougher compliance regimes. Much of our focus will be to build capacity within these countries' rich in timber resources to ensure there will be legal and enforcement consequences.

Peter, from Washington, DC writes:
There are numerous countries where people are more concerned with earning enough to eat today than with conservation for tomorrow. What incentives will be given in countries where illegal logging is one of the very few sources of income for large portions of the population?

John Turner
Excellent question. I find it gratifying that many leaders in developing countries realize that in the long-term, earning a decent wage, having enough to eat and to care for a family is dependent on the wise use and sustainable management of natural resources. There are many regions in the world suffering from the results of illegal logging and severe deforestation with poverty, corruption and the lack of hope as a result of the devastation of their local forests.

William, from Washington writes:
Some imported wood products such as plywood and furniture are made with timber that is illegally harvested, yet US consumers have little idea where the wood comes from. Do you support some kind of certification or tracking system so US consumers know their wood products are legal?

John Turner
Certification and tracking systems are being developed by environmental groups, timber companies and retail interests. It is obviously a complex and challenging issue. To work in the future, it will need the full support and capacity of the host countries, i.e. those producing the wood. I see considerable progress and an active dialogue in this area. I expect continuous progress to be made.

Scott, from San Antonio writes:
There is no US law prohibiting the import of conflict timber from countries like Liberia. Why don't we address this?

John Turner
Reflecting the Bush Administration's strong commitment to combat illegal logging on all fronts, the U.S. recently supported sanctions on timber products from Liberia.

Jensen, from Falls Park writes:
I just want to say one word to you -- just one word -- 'plastics.' If the U.S. were committed to using only plastics, we could save our forests. Certainly we don't need a wooden desk, plastic frames are attractive, plastic homes are sturdy. Why not just forbid the use of wood?

John Turner
Interesting question...however, my personal belief is there would also be serious environmental consequences from such a dramatic production and consumption of plastics derived from non-renewable petroleum resources. I am confident that an attempt to have an international prohibition on the use of wood would have devastating impacts on people in developing and impoverished nations.

John F. Turner
PIAIL Brochure Many thanks for the very thoughtful questions. I appreciate your interest in this exciting initiative that President Bush has launched to combat the tragic impacts of illegal logging, especially in some of the poorest nations in the world. Please click here to see the brochure we distributed at Sec. Powell's announcement yesterday.