Originally published in Guitar Aficionado, Spring 2010
The Lacey Act has made it exponentially more difficult to obtain and transport precious woods, threatening to bring international guitar trade to a halt.
On November 17, 2009, agents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) raided the Gibson guitar factory in Nashville. Based on allegations made in a sealed affidavit, the FWS was convinced that Gibson was using rosewood and ebony harvested illegally from Madagascar. The agents seized company computers as well as guitars and wood. The event sent shockwaves through the guitar manufacturing industry, not least because of Gibson’s reputation as an environmentally responsible and conscientious producer of guitars that steadfastly adhered to Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification and requirements. Gibson Guitar Chairman and CEO Henry Juszkiewicz even served on the board of the Rainforest Alliance, an organization dedicated to the preservation of tropical forests.
Although the investigation is ongoing and Gibson hasn’t been convicted of any wrongdoing, the raid sent a harsh warning to companies that purchase raw wood materials. In the recent past, government officials probably wouldn’t have bothered to investigate the allegations, but on May 22, 2008, the U.S. Congress passed an amendment to the Lacey Act, a piece of legislation dating back to 1900 that was originally written to protect wildlife. The amendment expanded the act’s protection measures to include certain varieties of plants and plant products, namely wood. Gibson became the first major U.S. manufacturer to be investigated after the changes went into effect.
“The way that the law is written, it’s illegal to import, export, or engage in the trade of any wood if that activity violates the law of your country or any other country,” explains Bob Taylor, the cofounder and president of Taylor Guitars. “The good thing about the act is that it should help to curtail a lot of illegal logging. The bad thing is that the law is insufficiently written and insufficiently [taught] down to the enforcement level. When you have enforcers who really don’t know what they’re looking for, that can cause a lot of problems for everyone, from large guitar companies to musicians who travel internationally with their instruments.”
The 2008 amendment takes a significant step toward protecting tonewood sources from becoming endangered or even totally wiped out. Since 1975, endangered species of flora and fauna have been protected by the CITES Treaty (CITES is an acronym for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), which safeguards more than 33,000 species of animals and plants. The amended Lacey Act, however, covers an even broader scope than CITES. Now guitar builders must ensure that the woods they use comply not only with the laws of their own country but also with the laws of the country where the wood originated and where the finished guitar may end up being shipped.
“The Lacey Act requires more due diligence on the part of the receiver of the wood than there was in the past,” Taylor says. “We can’t just take someone’s word that the wood we’re buying is legit; we’re going to need to get on the plane, bus, boat, and donkey to take a close look at operations and the source. Even if your act was already clean, you’re going to have to clean it up even more.”
Guitar makers have already felt the new law’s impact. “The Lacey Act has imposed very strict rules concerning the importation of guitars into other countries,” says Stefan Sobell, who has been building fine guitars from rare and exotic tonewoods in England since 1975. “Each country has different rules. The act allows for the importation of woods as long as they’re certified as legal in their countries of origin. Certification in England is very clear and strict. But once it’s certified here, I’m not certain if it’s certified in the United States. There isn’t a consistent policy in force in the U.S. yet. For the time being, it looks like I may not be able to ship guitars to there, and because the U.S. is a major market for me, this is a blow to my customers as well as a threat to my livelihood.”
Taylor stresses that guitar companies and builders who deal exclusively with legally harvested wood should be okay as long as the materials are accompanied by the proper paperwork. But the problem for many builders, particularly small specialists like Sobell, is that their guitars are built from stockpiles of wood that they have stored and aged for many years. Often, the proper paperwork to verify the legitimacy of those woods doesn’t exist and never did.