The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (F&WS) seems intent on making Gibson Guitar the high-profile example of its efforts to enforce the Lacey Act as amended in 2008 to encompass illegally sourced wood.
Last Wednesday, agents of the Department of Justice (DOJ), armed with automatic weapons and search warrants obtained by the F&WS, raided Gibson's factories in Nashville and Memphis. The agents seized ebony and rosewood lumber, dozens of guitars and electronic files from the Nashville plant.
In its search warrant filing, the F&WS alleged that Gibson was the final destination of some 1,250 pieces of what it deems illegally imported Indian ebony seized by U.S. custom officials at a Dallas airport on June 22, according to The Commercial Appeal. The F&WS further alleges that Gibson violated the Lacey Act because India bans the exports of non-processed wood that is is more than 6mm thick; the wood confiscated in Dallas reportedly was 10mm thick.
Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz lashed out at the F&WS and DOJ in a press release and media interviews. "Gibson is innocent and will fight to protect its rights. Gibson has complied with foreign laws and believes it is innocent of ANY wrong doing. We will fight aggressively to prove our innocence."
The head of Gibson protested the extreme measures taken by the armed agents in the raids and said the action was not about illegal logging. "The wood the Government seized on August 24 is from a Forest Stewardship Council certified supplier and is FSC Controlled, meaning that the wood complies with the standards of the Forest Stewardship Council, which is an industry-recognized and independent, not-for-profit organization established to promote responsible management of the world’s forests," Juszkiewicz said in a written statement. "FSC Controlled Wood standards require, among other things, that the wood not be illegally harvested and not be harvested in violation of traditional and civil rights."
Juszkiewicz further suggested that the feds are grasping at straws in interpreting the wood as being illegal not because of how it was harvested but for not meeting India's law meant to require value-added processing by the domestic wood industry prior to export. "This action was taken without the support and consent of the government in India," he added.
Juskiewizc also took dead aim in criticizing the Lacey Act. "The U.S. Lacey Act does not directly address conservation issues but is about obeying all laws of the countries from which wood products are procured. This law reads that you are guilty if you did not observe a law even though you had no knowledge of that law in a foreign country."
Deja Vu All Over Again
Juskiewicz and Gibson have good reason to feel persecuted after experiencing a similar raid by armed federal agents at its Nashville facility in November 2009. The feds continue to hold Madagascar ebony fingerboard blanks and guitars seized in that raid and nearly two years later have yet to file any charges against Gibson.
"Gibson has obtained sworn statements and documents from the Madagascar government and these materials, which have been filed in federal court, show that the wood seized in 2009 was legally exported under Madagascar law and that no law has been violated," Juskiewicz stated. "Gibson is attempting to have its property returned in a civil proceeding that is pending in federal court. The Justice Department has asked the judge to stop the court case indefinitely."
In the absence of better information from the government, it is hard not to side with Gibson Guitar in this battle. On another level, how is it that Gibson has been slapped twice by the feds while nearly no one else in the wood products industry has since enforcement of the amended Lacey Act began? It's darn near impossible to imagine that U.S. custom agents have been able to spot other U.S. companies that have might have run afoul of the law through ignorance of foreign wood procurement rules, failing to properly document their wood imports or some other potential Lacey Act violation.
Until proven otherwise, I give Juckiewicz and Gibson the benefit of the doubt that it continues to operate above the law and remains committed to sourcing woods that enhance its reputation as a premier guitar maker and not contribute to the destruction of the world's forests.
No doubt companies that import wood and wood products are paying close attention to Gibson's saga. Hopefully they are redoubling their efforts to ensure that they are meeting the requirements of the Lacey Act to the fullest. If not, they should be.
What's your take? Do you agree with me that Gibson Guitar is getting a raw deal based on the available facts? I invite you to share your comments.
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