The Lacey Act was introduced in 1900 by Republican Congressman John F. Lacey of Iowa and Republican William McKinley made it into law. This was a time when Republicans cared about the environment, the conservative linguistic base shared with conservation, while progressives were technocrats bent on building Utopia. It was designed to stop trade in illegal wild game but over time it was amended to include many things, eventually including wood. Pres. Ronald Reagan signed an amendment including illegal logging and in 2008 there was virtual agreement among the entire finished products industry that it needed to include lumber as well and Pres. George W. Bush supported it. That's right, three Republicans supported laws protecting wood.
The reason was simple; American guitar and furniture makers want to be responsible but the illegal trade would make it easier for companies in China and Russia and elsewhere to manufacture goods and undercut everyone. The Lacey Act required a documented chain of possession for anything sold in America.
But an obscure provision, as I noted, also had unintended effects that were a concern - it required the US to obey local laws, including a US interpretation of those laws even that country might not use. So ten years ago, four Americans were charged with importing lobster tails in plastic bags rather than cardboard boxes, a violation of a Honduran regulation that Honduras no longer enforced (see a list of obscure, bizarre local laws still on the books in America - imagine if foreign countries enforced these in their countries on visitors returning from the USA). Yet the law is the law and so they were sentenced to 8 years of imprisonment each. The Lacey Act, in that case designed to keep Americans from breaking foreign rules when hunting or fishing (like poaching elephants in Kenya) clearly was wrong in principle regarding a lobster in a bag instead of a box. But overall it has been good, thus my praise.
Now it is wrong again, this time with Gibson Guitars.
I don't know Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz personally but I know others who run guitar companies large and small and I know guitars are not like most businesses; you can't be an MBA and just walk in there, and you can't be the head of a dishwasher company and get hired from outside to run a guitar company. You have to know guitars to run a guitar company and that means caring about them - and thus being a fanatic about wood (see Guns, Guitars and Greenpeace for efforts by guitar makers to be part of the environmental solution to sustainable wood).
In 2009, after the latest Lacey Act amendment, and with a new administration in power, federal agents raided the Gibson company offices over wood from Madagascar - Madagascar had a coup so is it now a 'legal' government or not? No one can say but suddenly the wood was suspect, according to the Fish&Wildlife Commission. The company filed a lawsuit in protest and then a few weeks ago they were raided again, this time over wood from India.
Federal investigators look through the workshop at the Gibson Guitar factory during a raid on the Memphis facility last week. Credit: Jim Weber/The Commercial Appeal/ZUMAPRESS.com
No charges have been filed in either case; they are simply being 'investigated' - the same way the FBI might harass the Mafia - but the company contends it is not doing anything illegal, including by the laws of India.
Juszkiewicz issued a statement saying the government contends "the use of wood from India that is not finished by Indian workers is illegal, not because of U.S. law, but because it is the Justice Department's interpretation of a law in India."
See what I mean about US courts interpreting foreign law under the Lacey Act?
The dispute is over Indian Ebony, all completely documented and legal except for this interpretation business. The Indian government "prohibits the export of sawn wood" but does not prohibit the export of veneers, sheets of woods that have already been worked on. The Feds say the wood was falsely declared as veneers because some assembly is still done in the U.S rather than India.
Worse, says Juszkiewicz, the government told him if he would just have all of the work outsourced to India, the problem would go away. Yes, we've had the worst employment month since World War II and someone in the government that created this mess is telling an American company to outsource more jobs.
Gibson has been importing the wood for decades with no issue, it is only the latest wrinkle and someone in the Justice Department now interpreting Indian law - it's clearly in the legal framework of the Lacey Act but, as I said, the legal framework sometimes needs to allow for common sense.
What should never happen is the American government hinting to an American company they should outsource more jobs to meet an obscure part of an American regulation the company helped lobby to put in place to insure ethical resources.
For years, Gibson has been a part of Greenpeace "Music Wood" coalition, their CEO was on the Board of the Rainforest Alliance and Gibson was an early adopter of the certification created by the (useless) Forest Stewardship Council. Why has the Environmental Investigation Agency, a militant group funded by progressive billionaire George Soros, been lobbying the Justice Department so hard to go after Gibson?
We don't have answers to that yet and Gibson can't find out in court - because still no charges have been filed, meaning they have to file their own lawsuit and wait to get access to government proof. Under the Lacey Act, the government was able to raid the company and do millions of dollars in business damage without recourse.
And this new interpretation means I can't take an old guitar with me on an international trip, because when I come back, I won't be able to document where every piece of wood came from - no one can, on any old guitar. Under the Lacey Act and its interpretation by the Obama administration, they can just take my heirloom. It also means a staunch ally of responsible environmental practices, guitar makers, now have to start looking for ways to tear down the Lacey Act - or move their companies overseas.