The Lacey Act, politics and premium guitars

by Scott Paul

October 13, 2011

When we think of lumber we don’t always consider pianos, guitars, and violins. Yet these musical instruments tend to be made of some of the most valuable, exotic and sought-after woods on the planet, often originating from some of the most imperiled forest regions on Earth.

The shimmer of a guitar chord and the flourish of a violin alike owe their appeal not only to the song, not only to the strings, not only to the musicians themselves who bring the notes to life. No, the warmth, resonance and appeal of so much music really does depend on the very wood from which we craft our instruments.

And here’s where the story of the sustainability of fine wood and politics meet, striking a truly interesting note.

In terms of music quality tone wood obtained with environmental and social responsibility, instrument-manufacturers are an obvious agent of change. We all love guitars and pianos and manufacturers want fine quality woods forever. In fact, manufacturers are increasingly striving to buy tone wood such as spruce, maple, rosewood, ebony, and mahogany that have been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). This provides the best available assurance that a forest product came from a well-managed location and from a legal source.

However the challenge faced by the folks who make musical instruments out of these coveted woods is that they are increasingly precious commodities. Finding the right tree is just the start. The right tree is often hundreds of years old, it is arrow-straight and absent a host of imperfections.

The tree that becomes someone’s perfect musical instrument was, initially, perfection itself. Now, remember that many traditionally used species are found in remote isolated regions of the planet and must be cut and sold legally and the hunt for good wood becomes an increasingly difficult quest.

Still, most manufacturers are up for it.

Greenpeace has enjoyed working with many famous instrument makers. We have much in common as we all want to see the forests that produce world class musical instruments capable of providing them forever. We’ve worked with manufacturers to help them get FSC certified wood, thus helping to counterbalance both destructive logging practices and the scourge of illegal logging. In many parts of the world illegal logging is often fueled by international demand for a very few high-value tree species — the search for which is often the first act of intrusion in to a pristine forest.

For example, once an illegal road network is established leading to specific high value species, access to the forest is enabled for further illegal cutting of other lesser value species. Thus an illegally cut, single mahogany tree felled to make a guitar neck opens the proverbial (and literal) road for further illegal cutting — and often social disruption — in the surrounding areas.

The United States is a major market for all forest products. Recognizing this, and state of affairs with illegal logging worldwide, Congress amended the now much-discussed Lacey Act in 2008 to cover the forest products trade. In essence, Lacey mandates that if you are a U.S. company importing a product from another country it is your responsibility to investigate whether or not your trading partners are breaking the law in their country. As the U.S. based trade partner, Lacey asks if you knew, or should you have known, that you’re in business with dirty players. If so, then you’re in violation of U.S. law. Lacey protects those doing things right by leveling the playing field against those who can undercut the market via dirty deeds done dirt cheap.

The intent of Lacey is noble and hard to argue against. Everyone knows that forests worldwide are in trouble and that illegal activity is a big part of the problem. The global forest products marketplace is gargantuan. It’s not to say that the majority of the trade is illegal, but the well-documented bit that is is enmeshed in activity such as official corruption, money laundering, arms dealing, the drug trade, murder, even slavery.

If you spin the globe it’s a lot more than lumberjacks and logrolling.

Today many musical instrument manufacturers have gotten better when it comes to understanding their relationship with the world’s wood supply. More and more are seeking out FSC certified sources. But here’s the snag. FSC awareness — let alone reach — doesn’t yet extend to all pockets of the planet including several places where much of the most coveted musical woods exist. FSC certification requires, among other things, basic civil governance, transparency and stakeholder participation.

Unfortunately many traditionally used tone woods grow in regions where this is lacking. Yet, we still have to know whether or not we are buying wood from illegal sources. If we are buying from a part of the world that is remote and where corruption is high, then statistically the odds only increase that some of our trading partners may be running afoul of the law.

The good news is that illegal logging is on the decline since the forest products trade fell under the Lacey umbrella. The bad news is that now a new group of people have joined the party. Carpetbagging anti-regulation front groups and political operatives with larger political agendas have joined the conversation and are intentionally confusing the debate, trying to paint Lacey as an expression of government overreach, anti-trade, and anti-American jobs.

There is much irony in this argument and it should be said that adding forest products to Lacey occurred with broad bi-partisan blessing and in the spirit of American job preservation — preventing the domestic market from being inundated with cheap, illegal imports. Imagine a world where those dealing with illegal wood were banned from the U.S. marketplace? Who “wins” in this world? One winner is clearly U.S. and other manufacturers who have long played by the rules, who can prove they are honest brokers. These same companies are today competing in the marketplace with imported products, such as guitars and pianos, made in countries who willfully turn a blind eye to illegal wood imports. Imagine it. If you can simply prove your wood is from legal sources then you can sell it in the U.S., if you can’t, you can’t. Considering the well documented organized crime and civil disruption often involved with illegal logging, it’s also in our broader national interest to economically reward the suppliers overseas who are doing it right.

So how do we more forward from here?

First, let’s move away from the idea of amending the law. It’s good legislation with over a century’s experience. It’s already proving to be a powerful way to put the brakes on illegal logging. Trying to make changes in this highly charged political atmosphere risks gutting its effectiveness, which is precisely what the anti-regulatory crowd and those lobbyists paid to protect illegal overseas operators want. As happens all the time with U.S. law, important implementation issues can be sorted out at the agency level.

We just need to cut through all the well orchestrated confusion and smoke and mirrors generated by those with much larger agendas.

If the right people get together and we don’t lose track of our common ground — the prevention of illegal logging and a secured source of tone woods, if we move away from the hysterical distraction that Lacey is somehow an assault on small business, apple pie, warm summer nights and rock-and-roll than we’ll all be fine. Good guys win. Bad guys lose. Next time you’re air-guitaring along to your favorite solo, take a second to remember that you can’t shred if all the good music trees are dead. As long as we all keep cool, fine quality instruments will be available for future generations. That, for lack of a better term, would rock.

Image above: Greenpeace measuring illegaly logged mahogany, Uruara, Middle Land, Brazil. Greenpeace / Daniel Beltr

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