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Wood protection law creates splintering in guitar industry

While the National Assn. of Music Merchants and some guitar makers seek reform of the federal Lacey Act that protects certain exotic woods, others benefit from it.

January 24, 2012|By Geoffrey Mohan, Los Angeles Times
  • Alan Ollivant, left, a salesman at North American Wood Products in Portland, Ore., shows a guitar whose top is made with Sitka spruce reclaimed from logging bridges in Canada. With him at the National Assn. of Music Merchants conference is guitar maker Dan Biasca. He holds mahogany from Guatemala that is featured on the guitar's back, sides and neck and is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.
Alan Ollivant, left, a salesman at North American Wood Products in Portland,… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)

Veteran guitar repairman Bob Wirtz faced a wall of pricey custom-built electric guitars, and he had the ear of Gibson Guitar Corp.'s resident expert on the instruments. But what Wirtz wanted to talk about was international law.

Like many who attended the National Assn. of Music Merchants convention in Anaheim last weekend, Wirtz was tapping into a discordant tone among the makers, purveyors and purchasers of guitars that often are made from exotic woods protected by the federal Lacey Act.

A raid on Gibson's Nashville factory last summer, the second at company workshops in as many years, vaulted the once obscure law into the national spotlight when Chief Executive Henry E. Juszkiewicz accused the federal government of "bullying" and "persecution." His high-profile campaign against the raids has made him the darling of the GOP and the tea party movement and their agenda of regulatory reform.

At a hearing convened by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) shortly after the August raid, Juszkiewicz said the seizures, delays in bringing charges and wrangling over a Gibson countersuit were events he "just really would never have believed … would take place in this country."

Wirtz was sympathetic.

"For the Department of Justice or any entity of government to spend those kinds of resources on something that isn't well defined … it really seems to smell like politics as opposed to ecological concern," he said.

The law, first passed in 1900 to curtail trade in contraband wildlife, was amended in 2008 to address illegally harvested wood.

At the time, the amendments enjoyed bipartisan support, particularly among lawmakers from states with large forestry interests. They touted the measure as a way to protect American wood products from cheaper, illegally harvested wood from foreign sources. Such support is crumbling amid a presidential election campaign.

The National Assn. of Music Merchants backs Gibson's gripe and a congressional bill to revise Lacey. But the attitude of its members at the convention, which attracted more than 95,000 registrants, was more nuanced.

Wirtz, who has worked with guitars for half a century, runs the stringed instrument repair shop at a Sam Ash music store in the City of Industry. He was familiar with the dispute over whether Indian rosewood was lumber — illegal to export under Indian law — or finished fret board, which is exportable.

"The amount of Indian rosewood going into making a guitar is a tiny drop in the bucket," Wirtz said. "It's kind of a strange area of the economy to go after when there's so many other areas to go after."

Cliff Chulos, president of North American Wood Products, had a large display of sawed wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, or FSC.

He said he has benefited from the Gibson raid: His Portland, Ore., company now supplies fingerboard wood to the company.

Chulos remains a strong supporter of the 2008 Lacey amendments introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). "Not only is it beneficial for the environment, but it benefits America," he said.

Nonetheless, Chulos added, "Can't we revise the act to make it simpler for the buyers?"

Fingerboard blanks, he said, are too small to have any other use and shouldn't have to be classified as lumber. "It doesn't have any other use. It's not lumber."

Scott Paul, director of Greenpeace's forest campaign, said he fears the current GOP-dominated House may open the law to amendments pushed by lobbyists from less reputable foresters, particularly in Indonesia.

"The prospect of bringing this act back to Capitol Hill and opening it up is daunting," said Paul, who is not related to the senator. "Greenpeace feels a lot of the issues that are being raised can be addressed at the agency level."

C.F. Martin & Co. markets a line of guitars built entirely with FSC-certified wood, and others that include certified woods.

"We absolutely support the Lacey Act," said Gregory Paul, vice president of corporate operations for the Nazareth, Pa., company. He also is not related to the senator. "We understand the Lacey Act does create some difficult circumstances."

Holding a guitar made of FSC-certified woods, Gregory Paul said: "There are species available. You just have to be diligent about who you obtain it from."

geoffrey.mohan@latimes.com

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