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Effort To Ban The Sale Of Ivory In Vermont Falls Short

Ben Curtis
In a dramatic statement against the ivory trade, Kenyan officials torched 105 tons of ivory on Saturday in Nairobi National Park. Until recently, Vermont was on track to become the fifth state in the nation to ban the sale of ivory.

Until recently, Vermont was on track to become the fifth state in the nation to ban the sale of ivory. But the legislation has suddenly derailed, and hopes for its passage are dwindling as the end of the session nears.

On Saturday, officials in Kenya torched 105 tons of ivory in Nairobi National Park. It was the largest-scale destruction of its kind, sending clouds of dark smoke from large piles of white tusks. And it was designed to send a message to the illegal poachers who are killing off thousands of endangered elephants every year.

Africa may be ground zero for the poaching crisis. But it isn’t the only place where officials are working to dent the lucrative ivory trade blamed for driving a treasured species to near extinction.

“Some say, 'What can Vermont do? We’re such a small state,'" says Williston Rep. Jim McCullough. “But you know, we’re in between some pretty significant seaports – Montreal, Boston, New York.”

McCullough is one of the House lawmakers who spearheaded passage of legislation that would ban the sale of ivory and rhinoceros horn in Vermont. Federal statute already bans the interstate sale of those products.

“But the hole is the various 50 states, where there is no regulation for ivory,” McCullough says.

"Some say, 'What can Vermont do? We're such a small state. But you know, we're in between some pretty significant seaports - Montreal, Boston, New York." - Williston Rep. Jim McCullough

The House’s version of the ivory ban, however, didn’t sit well with Senate lawmakers. 

The House plan would have given Vermonters 18 months to sell off ivory-containing valuables before the ban took effect. After that, transactions involving those products would become illegal.

“Some of these things are valuable pieces,” says Rutland County Sen. Kevin Mullin, the Republican chairman of the Senate Committee on Economic Development. “We looked at a $12,000 chess set. We were shown a picture of a gun that had a value of $200,000. And we’re going to tell somebody, tough luck?”

The House proposal includes a special provision that would allow for continued legal sales of items that contain less than 200 grams of ivory – a threshold that would protect future sales of old pianos. It also exempts antiques more than 100 years old, among other things. But Mullin says it doesn't solve the problem for all valuables. 

He and his Senate colleagues preferred a plan that would allow people who document ownership of their ivory-containing valuables now to be allowed to sell them in the future. He says it would prevent addition of new products into the market stream and eliminate demand for new ivory – without robbing of Vermonters of the value of their existing holdings.

"Some of these things are valuable pieces. We looked at a $12,000 chess set ... And we're going to tell somebody, 'Tough luck?'" - Rutland County Sen. Kevin Mullin

McCullough says the Senate plan creates a loophole that undermines entirely the purpose of the legislation. He says smugglers could create a legitimate document for one piece, then replicate exact copies of that product as a means to sell off large quantities of ivory.

He says it’s a tactic used to sidestep similar regulations instituted in China.

“It’s a real fraud magnet,” McCullough says. “We don’t distrust Vermonters; they’re not going to do that. But the smugglers are smart.”

The problem now, McCullough says, is that the Senate is refusing to sit down to see if the two sides can compromise. Mullin says there’s no point in setting up a committee of conference to try to cut a deal.

“The other side is saying, ‘It’s our way or the highway.’ They don’t want us to compromise. They want us to just take their position, and when you’re forced into that position, where do you go?” Mullin says. 

Even if they could find common ground, Mullin says there are more pressing matters to resolve before the Legislature adjourns this weekend.

“There’s not enough time,” he says.

McCullough says he’ll continue working to get Senate lawmakers to the bargaining table.

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