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Is there illegal wood in your guitar?

8.8.12 by the Green Hammer Team

While Pickathon is certainly one of the most earth friendly, sustainably run music festivals around, there's one part of the action that gets overlooked- the instruments. Check out Stephen's latest blog post over at the DJC.

Is there illegal wood in your guitar?

I spent this past weekend dancing with my family (yeah, that’s me and my daughter with Langhorne Slim) and my volunteer Green Hammer crew listening to music at Pickathon, a three-day, Indie-rock music festival held at a farm in Happy Valley.

The festival is truly a conscientious, family-friendly event that every year through the energy and passion of the event organizers, musicians and volunteers has ratcheted up environmental stewardship. From renewable energy to the ban of single-use dishes, cups and utensils, Pickathon is setting the sustainability standard for other festivals. This is why amid the festivities I couldn’t help but ponder the irony that some musicians were playing Gibson guitars and likely other brands made from illegal timber.

Yes, guitars from illegal wood. While we greenies were dancing a jiggety-jig, Nashville-based Gibson Guitar was settling a lawsuit with the U.S. government over use of illegal timber from Africa and Asia. On Monday, Gibson Guitar agreed to pay more than $300,000 in penalties that legal experts say is an admission to the violation of the 2008 updates to the Lacey Act on the import of endangered illegal timber from Madagascar and India.

As the CEO of the only Forest Stewardship Council Chain of Custody (FSC-COC) certified building firm in the nation, I am a huge fan of the Lacey Act.  This enforcement of the 2008 update to the Lacey Act recognizes the atrocity of importing illegal timber that doesn’t meet the laws governing countries where the wood is harvested. The World Bank recently published a report valuing the illegal timber trade at $10 billion to $15 billion.

In some cases, illegal deforestation is done strictly under the premise of funding warlords in places like Afghanistan. Estimates show that 40 percent to 60 percent of timber from the tropics comes from illegal logging. Much of this demand comes from instrument manufacturers. Gibson and other instrument manufacturers have been hooked on illegal, endangered wood like ebony and rosewood for generations due to their choice sound qualities.  The building and architecture community has been hooked on illegal timber as well, most of which we buy under the blanket banner name ‘IPE’ and use it for decking or exterior cladding.  Granted some IPE is even FSC certified, but if it’s not there is a very high probability it’s illegal especially if that wood was purchased pre-2008.  No doubt there are illegal IPE wrapped LEED certified buildings throughout our fair city.I’ve been aware of the Gibson lawsuit since 2009, when the U.S. National Fish and Wildlife Service made its first seizure of illegal wood from Gibson Guitar. Last August Gibson had illegal wood seized a second time. That’s twice in two years.

OK, from my understanding the wood from India was more of a technical legality and less the blood-diamond-like story of the wood seized from Madagascar. Regardless, if I were leading the iconic Gibson Guitar company and the federal government was seizing material because I was in violation of the Lacey Act, I would ensure to cross my T’s and dot my I’s and change my practices immediately. It would have been the right thing to do and could have averted the long term PR disaster. I can’t help but put the immortal words of George Bush Jr.’s into the mouth of Gibson Guitar CEO Henry Juszkiewicz:  “There’s an old saying in Tennessee — I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.” —Nashville, Tenn., Sept. 17, 2002

Well greenie-minded-Pickathonians don’t go throwing out your old Les Paul or other instruments from likely illegal deforestation. The damage is already done; no need to waste. There is nothing illegal about owning a guitar made from illegal timber, but if you’ve read this far, you can now make informed future choices. And instrument makers? You should invest in and understand the supply chain of the wood products that are fundamental to your business. Contact the Forest Stewardship Council , the global non-profit leader promoting responsible management of the world’s forests, or this amazing music-wood oriented non-profit Sound and Fair. Sound and Fair was fundamental in helping instrument manufacturers like Hanson, a clarinet manufacturer, and Martin Guitar to get FSC certified. If you are looking for a new instrument you should support Portlander Jonathan Lee, chief designer and president of Walden Guitars and his Madera line of eco-friendly FSC-pure instruments. So my message to you all is this: get festive and go green, get your jiggety on and support FSC.

By the way, get ready for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife to start investigating building materials soon, you’ll be shocked to discover that some of your favorite specified materials are just as illegal as your Les Paul.

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