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Why Gibson guitars ran afoul of logging rules, and why activists are in Anaheim for NAMM

Henry Juszkiewicz, CEO of the Gibson Guitar Co. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service raided the Gibson Guitar Co. and seized wood, computer file and accused the company of making guitars with prohibited wood.
Henry Juszkiewicz, CEO of the Gibson Guitar Co. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service raided the Gibson Guitar Co. and seized wood, computer file and accused the company of making guitars with prohibited wood.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Over the last few years, guitars and a sort of obscure law against illegal logging have come into conflict. Environmental activists are in Anaheim today, at the National Association of Music Merchants trade show, to do a raising awareness song-and-dance about this. Literally: they've got a musician with them. 

The guitars are Gibsons, and the law is the Lacey Act. An NPR colleague reported on this issue from Tennessee last year. Gibson is just a flash point: federal law enforcement officials have investigated the company on the suspicion that it broke laws in India and Madagascar. The Lacey Act makes it illegal to import and trade in illegal timber. (For more about how that's determined, check out the resources from NGO Environmental Investigation Agency.) The idea's to make the supply chain more transparent; U.S. importers of wood products must file a declaration identifying the species name and country of harvest. 

Gibson's CEO, Henry Juszkiewicz, has been talking since it's been raided to all and sundry about his frustration at the loss of millions of dollars from the raids, and the (to date) lack of charges filed. "The government has chosen to persecute us," Henry Juszkiewicz, the CEO of Gibson told the Heritage Institute. "We actually have done nothing wrong. No charges have been filed at this point." Juszkiewicz cuts a fascinating figure because he has worked closely with the Rainforest Alliance in the past. In the Huffington Post, he actually has advocated for tougher logging rules. 

Remember, conservation laws try to combat illegal logging to protect ecosystems, to protect biological diversity, and to minimize climate impact. In places like Madagascar, there's controversy about corrupt practices, collusion among the "timber mafia" and the government. Despite that, Gibson believes it's on firm ground. 

Plenty of people don't agree. EIA's Andrea Johnson told NPR: 

"Gibson clearly understood the risks involved," says Johnson. "Was on the ground in Madagascar getting a tour to understand whether they could possibly source illegally from that country. [ed.: she says she meant "legally"] And made a decision in the end that they were going to source despite knowing that there was a ban on exports of ebony and rosewood."

Interestingly, Martin and Taylor Guitars are very vocal in their support for the Lacey Act. “The Lacey Act requires more due diligence on the part of the receiver of the wood than there was in the past. We can’t just take someone’s word that the wood we’re buying is legit," Bob Taylor said. "Even if your act was already clean, you’re going to have to clean it up even more.”

The Gibson case seems to be making people paranoid. Some lawyers are asserting that anybody who travels with a guitar overseas could get it ripped from their hands if it's got old-growth forest wood in it. Congress responds well to this kind of alarm; Tennessee lawmakers introduced a bill last fall to loosen Lacey regulation of instruments (more about that in a bit). Even so, the Department of Fish and Wildlife has explicitly said that Lacey Act enforcement won't target individual people, musicians or bands. They say Rosanne Cash is safe. (So do NRDC and legal scholar Jonathan Turley.)

The musician in Anaheim today is Razia Said. (Listen to Seattle-based KEXP's live set with her.) She grew up in Madagascar, in the northeast, Antalaha, and moved as she grew, landing in New York. There she sang jazz standards…until she toured Madagasar again. Now her sound includes some of the traditional stringed instruments of Malagasy music, and guitar. "The Masoala Rain Forest is being looted of it's irreplaceable endemic Rosewood trees. 1,000 trees a day are being ripped out from one of the worlds most bio-diverse habitats. Thousands of species are on the run and risk extinction as illegal loggers continue to strip the forest bare. The only way to stop the plunder is by drawing attention to the crime by involving local communities, Madagascar and the world."

So that's sort of generally why they're here. Tomorrow I'll write more specifically about the legislation that NAMM's lobbyists are pushing to weaken the Lacey Act, co-sponsored by California Republican Mary Bono Mack. 

Are you a Gibson guitar freak? Love the Martins but have been leaving 'em at home? Let us know.