George W. Bush isn't known around the world as a tree-hugger. After all, he's vilified from Munich to Manila for withdrawing the United States from the Kyoto accords on global warming, he's itching to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, and he recently reversed the Clinton administration by throwing open Yellowstone National Park to noisy, smelly snowmobiles.
So it may come as a surprise that President Bush, who likes to chop up mesquite and Texas cedar when he has a chance, has found a soft spot for mahogany - a tropical rain-forest tree so commercially valuable that Brazilians call it "green gold."
The United States surprised and delighted environmentalists - while infuriating wood importers and furniture manufacturers - when it voted last week in favor of new international rules toughening the conditions for trade in mahogany cut in the wild.
Some environmental groups suspect the White House of merely looking for an easy way to improve its not-so-green image. But others see it as a sign the administration is taking seriously a call Bush made Valentine's Day for the US to find ways to take on the global scourge of illegal logging. With some woods so valuable they are rivaling drugs and diamonds as income sources for international mafias, better control of the mahogany trade has become a law-enforcement issue as well as an environmental one.
"This is not window dressing. We're serious about what we're trying to do," says a White House source involved in environmental projects. "We think it's good for the world to work together on these kinds of international issues."
The regulations, approved on a tight vote last week at the biennial meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Santiago, Chile, mean that countries exporting mahogany will have to ensure it is harvested legally and in a sustainable manner.
Illegal mahogany cutting is a major cause of deforestation in Brazil's Amazon rain forest, as well as across swaths of Central America. With the US purchasing 70 percent of Brazil's mahogany for everything from pricey dining sets to coffins to high-end car trim, the CITES vote - and US support for it - is considered key to bringing illegal logging under control and slowing the Amazon's deterioration. "Our goal [has been] to find a pathway that would be best for the conservation of the resource," says Craig Manson, the assistant secretary of the Interior who headed the US delegation to the CITES meeting.
Yet as pleased as environmentalists are, they say the vote doesn't mean the US under Bush has gone wobbly on its approach to the environment.
"This was a tremendous victory not just for mahogany but for rain forests more generally, but I don't give the administration much of the credit for it," says Carroll Muffett of Defenders of Wildlife in Washington. "The fact that they came here [to the Santiago meeting] without a firm stand on how they would vote, when in fact mahogany is the single biggest problem in illegal logging, tells me they aren't that focused on the issue."
Interior's Mr. Manson says the "assumption" some critics have made - that arriving in Santiago without a set position on mahogany showed a lack of US commitment - "is not accurate." Rather, he says, the stance was a negotiating tactic. When the US found no consensus among wild-mahogany exporting countries, he says, it decided to vote in favor of the new rules.
In any case, other experts say they are encouraged that the administration is paying attention to global environmental issues - even if the explanation for it is not purely green. "At the end of the day, the US saw this was going to pass, so they went with it as an opportunity to show leadership on illegal logging," says Scott Paul of Greenpeace.
The US vote actually falls in line with other concerns that are higher on the administration's agenda since 9/11, Mr. Paul says. "Illegal logging has become a real law-and-order issue. There's so much money in this illegal trade that people talk about 'conflict timber' [just as they do about 'conflict diamonds']," he says.
Evidence has surfaced of illegal-logging money fueling conflict between Liberia and Sierra Leone, and even going to Al Qaeda, Paul says.
But he joins administration officials in pointing out other initiatives that predate the mahogany vote, backing up the claim that the administration didn't just discover trees last week. Manson says that recently the administration announced an ambitious Congo Basin initiative to be undertaken with several African countries and nongovernmental organizations for the preservation and sustainable use of millions of tropical forest acres.
And earlier this year, the US demonstrated its sensitivity to the mahogany issue by impounding millions of dollars' worth of mahogany in US ports after Brazil put a freeze on its trade.
The action sent tropical-wood importers to court to sue the US government for release of a product they had already purchased. But officials say they're confident consumers want the peace of mind of knowing the dining-room set they buy isn't contributing to the Amazon Basin's demise.