Government Owned Guitars: Is Your Instrument Destroying the Rainforest?

When it comes to being environmentally conscious, musicians tend to be a group that leads the pack. Artists often use their large and captive audiences to spread the word of “going green” and how they care for the environment. Artists the likes of Radiohead and Dave Matthews and The Roots have used their fame, worldwide tours, and lyrics to spread the word about protecting our earth and doing what we can to clean up our planet. However, there is one conundrum many of these musicians face when it comes to their mission to save the planet: their guitars.

Any guitar player will tell you, the type of wood that goes in to making high end guitars has a huge effect on the tone and playability of the instrument. Guitar makers like C.F. Martin & Co., Gibson, Fender, and Taylor all seek out rare hardwoods to make some of the worlds finest instruments that sell for multiple thousands of dollars. These instruments boast some of the rarest mahoganies, ebonies, and spruces from around the globe, some of which can sell for almost $200 per square foot. Even though these historic instrument makers have been using these woods for years, the companies have not gone without scrutiny by environmentalists and government agencies.

In August of 2011, Gibson guitars headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee was raided by armed members of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The reason for the raid? Nearly one million dollars worth of rare Indian ebony that was allegedly brought into the country illegally. This was the second raid in two years on the Gibson factory for possession of rare woods thought to be contraband. Gibson quickly sent out a press release stating that the company was in full compliance with the law. The statement claims that the wood seized was purchased from a certified Forest Stewardship Council supplier, that the company was not hiding the fact that they were in possession of the wood, and that Gibson will aggressively fight to prove their innocence.

The Gibson factory being raided is one of many stories of instrument manufacturers running in to similar situations. The government has used the U.S. Lacey Act as their primary basis for fighting these companies. The Lacey Act prohibits the trade of wildlife, fish, and plants that have been illegally taken or sold. This act was modified to include rare woods in 2008. Henry E. Juszkiewicz, chief of operations at Gibson, included in his press release that the Lacey Act “does not directly address conservation issues but is about obeying all laws of the countries from which wood products are procured. This law reads that you are guilty if you did not observe a law even though you had no knowledge of that law in a foreign country.

The U.S. Lacey Act is only applicable when a foreign law has been violated.” Juszkiewicz is right. He argues that the wood was completely legal because it was already finished, putting it in compliance with Indian law as well as the Lacey Act.

Instances like this provide a basis for interesting discussion on both political and environmental grounds. It is easy for an environmentally minded person to look at a situation like this and see that Gibson is using rare woods from remote parts of the world which could negatively impact the environment and automatically pin them as the “bad guys”. But, there are some details to this story not often seen in the press that may change people’s reactions.

While it cannot be denied that guitar makers do use rare woods, some of which are

considered endangered, it is important to realize how big their impact really is. Take Sitka spruce as an example. This is one of the most commonly found woods used by guitar makers across the planet. This wood is harvested mainly in Alaska and shipped all over the world. To fulfill an entire years worth of guitars to be sold, only about 150 Sitkas would need to be harvested. This makes up a tiny fraction of the total number of these trees that are cut and shipped every year. In fact, a large majority of Sitkas go to Japan to build homes. An overwhelming majority of the deforestation in the world is caused by logging companies that clear cut forests to create timber for building or use as fuel sources. These trees are cut down in quantities that far surpass the amount of wood guitar companies use and the impact of this clear cutting is massive and devastating.      

In the grand scheme of things, the impact of the guitar industry on the cutting and selling of

rare woods is small, if not negligible, in comparison to other industries. Gibson still has yet to face any charges of criminal activity from either of the raids over the past 3 years and at this point, is innocent of any illegal activity. But, even if Gibson were guilty of these accusations, one has to wonder why the government would spend their time seeking out small companies with minimal amounts of these imports while illegal logging is taking place all over and in much greater quantities. Gibson is even a part of SmartWood, a program set up by the Rain Forest Alliance that audits the illegal poaching of endangered wood species. They have also worked with Greepeace to encourage logging companies to stay away from endangered forests. Gibson, along with numerous other high end guitar manufacturers, care about their impact and manage to keep their footprint as small as they can. This makes one wonder, is the guitar industry simply an easy target because of their publicised use of these rare woods?

It is vital that all industries that take advantage of natural resources be regulated and operate within the law. If Gibson were indeed guilty of obtaining wood illegally, they should be penalized and have to pay the consequences for breaking the law. But, since there is still no substantial evidence that this is the case, why has so much time and energy been put in to this situation by the Fish and Wildlife Service when there are logging companies illegally clear cutting forests,  endangered species are being poached out of existence, and oil companies continue illegal operations with little to no regulation or accountability?

These questions obviously cannot be answered by anyone except those that enforce the law. But, it does put a certain weight on the shoulders of those who fight for environmental

issues and want to see change in the way our planet is treated. In the news, we often see protests against oil companies or corporations that are having a negative impact on the environment. One has to wonder if the government should be the ones being protested. Gibson is not the only example of a lack of focus by government run environmental agencies. The EPA has been brought to court multiple times for their lack of enforced regulation and won their cases with little to no consequences. Oil companies are constantly involved in law suits in which they are cleared of charges because they can simply pay off the fines with little impact to their business. Environmental issues have to start at the top with the root of the problem and work their way down. If major deforestation and pollution are not tackled before the companies like Gibson are attacked for their “injustices”, we may reach a point where there is no wood left to build guitars, much less raid them.

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