Gibson Guitar ignites debate over environmental protections

November 13, 2011

Three years ago, Democrats and Republicans joined to expand the nation’s oldest federal wildlife law to cover illegal logging.

But then federal investigators picked Gibson Guitar as the first target of the new provision, confiscating guitars and pallets of ebony two years ago that allegedly came from wood illegally logged in Madagascar. In August they seized more than 100,000 fingerboards allegedly made from imported Indian rosewood, along with electronic files.

Gibson Guitar’s chief executive , Henry Juszkiewicz, is striking back with efforts to amend the law, to provide more certainty not just for instrument manufacturers and dealers but also for musicians, who theoretically could run afoul of it by possessing instruments containing illegal wood.

That’s put him in the spotlight of the conservative campaign against what some view as federal regulatory overreach, and he’s gained an eclectic band of allies — including tea party adherents and the Democrat who represents the home of country music.

“I’m being pulled into this involvement through the Justice Department action,” Juszkiewicz said. “I’m sort of in the frying pan and my thought process is, that’s wrong. . . . Let me look at what is the problem, and let me fix it.”

Interior Department spokesman Adam Fetcher declined to comment on the federal inquiry into Gibson’s actions. No criminal charges have been filed in what federal officials call an ongoing probe; Gibson is fighting for return of the confiscated material.

Juszkiewicz’s campaign — which includes hiring the lobbying firm Crowell & Moring on retainer for more than $10,000 a month — has begun to yield results. In mid-October, Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) introduced a bill that would protect anyone who unknowingly possesses wood that violates the Lacey Act from prosecution; exempt any wood products owned before May 22, 2008, from the law; and compel the federal government to publish an Internet database of illegal wood sources to inform the public.

“The Gibson incident highlighted the urgency of looking at Lacey,” Cooper said. “I do want to protect guitar players and musicians who have old instruments. That’s the main focus of the law.”

Country music star Vince Gill and other musicians, such as Steve Bryant, who wrote the song “Keep Your Hands Off Our Wood,” argue that they could be held liable for old instruments without proper documentation.

Institute for Liberty President Andrew Langer, a conservative activist, said the Lacey Act is getting much more attention now than when he and others decried it after David McNab was convicted in 2001 of illegally importing lobster tails from Honduras. “Given that it’s Gibson Guitar, it’s certainly much, much higher profile than a seafood importer in the Gulf.”

Senior officials from the Justice Department and Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service have repeatedly rejected the idea that musicians could run afoul of the Lacey Act. In a Sept. 19 letter to Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who co-sponsored Cooper’s bill, officials from the two agencies wrote, “people who unknowingly possess a musical instrument or other object that contains wood that was illegally taken, transported or sold in violation of the law and who, in the exercise of due care, would not have known it was illegal, do not have criminal exposure. The Federal Government focuses its enforcement efforts on those who are removing protected species from the wild and making a profit by trafficking in them.”

To win GOP support, Cooper wrote a bill that covers far more than musicians. It would remove requirements for retailers and manufacturers bringing in non-solid wood products — such as pulp and paper — to identify their source, as well as prevent the confiscation of illegally logged wood from someone who did not knowingly possess it.

Environmentalists, forest product manufacturers, union officials and several lawmakers warned that revamping the Lacey Act could have profound economic and ecological consequences.

Northland Forest Products chief executive Jameson S. French, who helped push for the 2008 amendment, said the measure “sent the message to the global business community that the U.S. meant business about no illegal wood products being brought into this country.”

The American Forest and Paper Association estimates that illegal logging costs the U.S. timber and wood products industry $1 billion a year, and it opposes any immediate change to the Lacey Act. French said America’s grade lumber exports have soared in recent years as overseas suppliers look for hardwood products that can reenter the United States without a problem.

The environmental stakes are high as well. National parks in Madagascar have been decimated by illegal logging since a 2009 coup d’etat created political disarray there. In places such as Masoala National Park, a reserve affilated with the Zurich Zoo, poorly paid poachers create trails into the forest, consume forest lemurs and flying foxes to sustain themselves and fell five trees for every one of precious wood they take because ebony and rosewood timber cannot float on their own.

Part of the drive to retool the Lacey Act stems from its requirement that businesses take “due care” to ensure their suppliers were not violating the law in the wood’s country of origin. Langer calls the requirement “onerous.”

Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), who co-authored the 2008 amendment, said responsible businesses shouldn’t have a compliance problem. “The whole concept here was to promote people being more conscious of what happened in their supply chain,” he said.

Gibson and other major guitar manufacturers conducted a fact-finding mission in Madagascar in 2008. Taylor Guitars and Martin Guitars stopped obtaining wood from Madagascar, but according to an e-mail that has surfaced in the federal probe, a Gibson employee wrote that a local supplier could still obtain ebony from “the gray market.”

Juszkiewicz — who backs Cooper’s bill but is still seeking changes in it that would provide U.S. firms with greater certainty about what wood is acceptable to import — said he believes it is possible to obtain legitimately harvested wood from Madagascar. He said he decided to keep buying there because he doesn’t see “prohibition” as an answer. “How does that fix the problem?” he asked, adding that a better approach is to say, “We want to buy the wood from you, but we only want to buy the wood that’s good.”

Alexander Von Bismarck, who as executive director of the D.C.-based nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency documented the illegal timber trade in Madagascar, said the country doesn't need that kind of help.

“We found that the money that flows to the timber barons is systematically moved overseas while the logger in Madagascar gets a few dollars a day to break into a national park and steal wood,” he wrote in an e-mail. “That’s not supporting development, that’s just supporting crime.”  

Research director Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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