Last week’s federal raid on the Nashville and Memphis offices of Gibson Guitar sheds new light on the environmental implications of musical instrument manufacturing and distribution. Agents from the US Fish and Wildlife Service descended upon the guitar maker, presumably in search of illegally harvested wood materials. The feds, who seized wood pallets, guitars, and electronic files, have not commented on the raid. However, Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz accused the Justice Department of bullying and assured that the seized wood is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.
It’s not the first time Gibson has been singled out for regulatory scrutiny. In 2009 the company was similarly raided for wood that was alleged to have come from protected forests. That ongoing investigation targets whether hardwoods such as Madagascar ebony — used in the manufacture of fretboards — were harvested illegally (knowingly or otherwise) by the company. The latest case apparently seeks clarification on whether wood sourced from India was properly procured.
Such investigations carry vast implications for not just musical instrument makers, but the musicians who keep them in business. Owners of vintage instruments that incorporate materials harvested from protected forests are not immune from potential scrutiny. Such concerns arise from recent updates to the 1900 Lacey Act, which requires anyone crossing the US border to declare any and all plant products in possession. That process requires a small mountain of paperwork, all of which must be exhaustively filled out.
“If you are the lucky owner of a 1920s Martin guitar, it may well be made, in part, of Brazilian rosewood,” writes Eric Felten in The Wall Street Journal. “Cross an international border with an instrument made of that now-restricted wood, and you better have correct and complete documentation proving the age of the instrument. Otherwise, you could lose it to a zealous customs agent–not to mention face fines and prosecution.”
Indeed, a quick Google search on “musicians” and “illegal” and “wood” generates a slew of articles and comment boards debating how vulnerable musicians really are to investigation. The anxiety is enough to persuade many artists to leave their old instruments at home when traveling abroad. The Lacey Act’s imposition of “strict liability” holds a musician responsible for possessing instruments that incorporate illegal materials, whether or not they know it. Some instruments are old enough to be grandfathered, but insufficient paperwork can be sufficient for having your prized guitar or piano impounded by the feds.
With the potential for investigation and prosecution increasingly a concern, it’s ironic that more musicians do not switch to instruments made from sustainable materials. “Surprisingly, musicians, who represent some of the most savvy, ecologically minded people around, are resistant to anything about changing the tone of their guitars,” Dick Boak, artist relations director for guitar maker C.F. Martin & Co., told the Journal.
To be sure, few things are finer than strumming a vintage Gibson or Martin guitar. And if you happen to own one, you might want to keep a declaration form in its case.