Guitar Antihero 4: Gibson's crusade is off-key with U.S. workers
This is the final story in a four-part series about how Gibson Guitar CEO Henry Juszkiewicz and foreign timber companies have turned illegal logging into the Tea Party’s cause célèbre. Read part 1, part 2, and part 3.
Faced with accusations that his company had illegally imported wood from Asia, Gibson Guitar CEO Henry Juszkiewicz launched a media campaign bashing the federal government’s action and criticizing aspects of the law he had allegedly broken — the Lacey Act, which bans the import of illegally logged forest products.
“We’ve been severely harassed by the Department of Justice (DOJ), no charges have been filed, we’ve had two armed raids, a significant amount of wood confiscated,” Juskiewicz said on the Lou Dobbs Show. He told a conservative talk radio host that “The DOJ’s position is that we should just shut down and go away as a company.”
In a letter to President Obama, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) took up Juszkiewicz’s cause: “Your agencies and this administration are actively pursuing regulatory and legal policies that discourage job growth in the United States and encourage shipping those very same jobs overseas.”
The reality is that the Lacey Act and other similar measures have enjoyed strong bipartisan support and enthusiastic backing from the American forest products industry. The amendments to the Lacey Act that prohibit the import of illegally logged or traded goods were passed with the strong support of the George W. Bush administration in 2008, with bipartisan Senate co-sponsors in Lamar Alexander (from Gibson’s home state of Tennessee) and Ron Wyden of Oregon.
The reason: American forest products growers, companies, and workers were being asked to compete with foreign operators who employ slave and child labor, and log in national parks and other areas without permission and without paying taxes — even companies that funded Taliban attacks on American soldiers. Competition from illegal imports costs the American forest products industry around $1 billion per year, representing thousands of lost jobs, according to a study by the American Forest & Paper Association.
Mark Barford, executive director of the Memphis-based National Hardwood Lumber Association put it succinctly: “We need the protection of the Lacey Act. We need a fair playing field. Our small, little companies cannot compete with artificially low prices from wood that comes in illegally … This is our Jobs Act.”
The economic benefit of the Lacey Act is why such an unusually wide array of groups support it: the Hardwood Federation (representing more than 13,000 companies across the U.S.), the American Forest & Paper Association, the United Steelworkers (who represent 100,000 pulp and paper workers), Lowe’s Home Improvement, Teamsters International, National Hardwood Lumber Association, International Paper, and hundreds of small and large companies alike, as well as a wide array of environmental groups.
“The [United Steelworkers] has seen true devastation among our members as multiple plants have closed or reduced production, in large part because of imports from nations where illegal logging is a large part of the timber supply,” said Holly Hart, the group’s Legislative Director, told the Chestertown (Ind.) Tribune.
Nonetheless, eager to jump on the latest Tea Party cause and bolstered by Boehner’s speech, some Republicans have been kicking around the idea of repealing or altering the Lacey Act to carve out exemptions for the guitar industry or other users of wood.
But Gibson is an outlier in its own industry. Other major guitar manufacturers have embraced Lacey Act compliance — and have found affordable, legal, sustainable, and super high quality hardwoods for their instruments. Here’s how Bob Taylor, CEO of Taylor Guitars, recently described his company’s approach to Lacey in a blog post for the Forest Legality Alliance:
It’s very simple. We now investigate the sources of our wood, and we ensure to the best of our ability that the wood was taken legally. We fill out the paper work required and we present our business as an open book. The cost isn’t so much for us. It’s not an unbearable added burden, and we’re happy to do the extra administrative work.
If I could take any user of wood, whether it be a guitar player or a purchaser of a dining room table, with me on a trip to the forest of 2011 in many, many parts of the world, and let them see with their own eyes the state of the forests and the people living in them, I’d stake my last dollar on the fact that they’d come home and preach with a loud voice how deforestation has got to be stopped. You have to see it to believe it, and if you haven’t seen it with your own eyes, you can’t argue against it. Period. I’m sorry, but that’s the truth.
The comparisons from within its own industry, as well as perhaps some genuine environmental conscience (Gibson has historically provided financial support for conservation efforts) has moved Juszkiewicz to put some space between himself and some of the Tea Party’s extreme calls to repeal or roll back significant parts of the Lacey Act. “I believe we need government in this area to ensure that wood is used responsibly,” he told Greenwire in an interview.
Nonetheless, Juszkiewicz is scheduled to participate in a Tea Party rally in Nashville next Saturday, Oct. 8, sponsored by Americans for Prosperity and other Tea Party groups. And Gibson recently hired a Washington lobbying firm to explore the possibility of pushing amendments to the law.
However, outside of foreign interests associated with illegal logging, it’s hard to find a major constituency that doesn’t embrace the Lacey Act. In fact, until Gibson’s Tea Party campaign, support for Lacey seemed to be growing along with evidence that it is producing results. The law and similar measures passed in Europe, Japan, and elsewhere have produced a 22 percent decline in illegal logging around the globe. Just this past week, at a ceremony in New York, the Lacey Act was recognized by the United Nations as one of the world’s three most effective forest policies.
Indeed, environmentalists and their allies hope the government increases its enforcement of the Lacey Act, especially by expanding it to sectors other than musical instruments. Most observers believe that just a few enforcement actions will likely cause the vast maj
ority of importers to ensure that their wood and paper comes from legal sources, reducing the need for actions like the one against Gibson.
The Lacey Act is a government program that works, providing jobs, protecting the environment, and promoting development — and doing it all with bipartisan and broad industry support. That very effectiveness may explain the Tea Party’s distaste for it: If you’re trying to drown government in the bathtub, the last thing you want is an example of a government program that’s popular, keeping Americans at work, and saving forests and wildlife along the way.
Full disclosure: Glenn Hurowitz is currently doing communications work for the Environmental Investigation Agency, a nonprofit advocacy organization that is campaigning to protect the Lacey Act from corporate, Tea Party, and Republican attacks. He wrote these articles as a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, a nonprofit that also works to stop illegal logging.