The Lacey Act

Tuesday, 20 March 2012  |  Robert Smith

The Lacey Act


Some time ago I set about the task of writing a newsletter that would be a little more serious than usual but that had content that I thought everyone should know.
Having only a medium quality education, I finished working on this piece but was left unsure whether I had all my facts straight.
I decided not to proceed any further with it because I felt it would be worse if it were to mislead or misinform people than if I did not let it out at all.
By the way, this piece was about the Lacey act and illegal logging in Madagascar.
On 15th March 2012 the BBC transmitted a program in the ‘Natural World’ series titled ‘Madagascar, Lemurs and Spies’. It was a high profile, prime time programme with the full authority of David Attenborough’s narration. I watched it with mounting interest because it felt like I could have written part of the script myself. One by one the programme confirmed the facts in my old abandoned newsletter. I now feel perfectly at ease reviving and releasing this newsletter and it follows here...

The Lacey Act

Spring/Summer 2012

Rosewood Log Stockpile

If you export your product to the USA you need to know about it. In November of last year the FBI raided one of World’s biggest and most iconic musical instrument builders, Gibson Guitars in Nashville. Timber stocks, guitars, computers and paper files were seized. The company is being investigated on suspicion of violation of the Lacey act, a key piece of US environmental legislation concerning timber imports into the USA.

Formal charges have yet to be made but this will be a heartbreaking event for the century old manufacturer especially because it had taken such a high profile position in the links it has with environmental organisations and certification schemes. Amongst other eco things Gibson chairman and CEO Henry Juszkiewicz was a board member of the Rainforest Alliance group, but has resigned this position following the raid.

The quiet world of Britain’s guitar makers is now abundant with Chinese whispers because from the 1st April 2010 the Lacey act has applied to finished products as well as raw materials. Stringed instruments are specifically mentioned on the list. It seems we have some of the finest guitar makers in the world in the UK and a good proportion of the production is exported to the USA and worldwide.

Anybody sending other types of finished woodwork to the USA should take note of these events and their customers should also be advised that they must comply with the Lacey act. Furniture makers are also on the list.

I hope in this newsletter to explain my understanding of the Lacey act and also how and why Gibson guitars may have got into this mess.

The Lacey act is the United States’ oldest piece of wildlife protection legislation dating back to 1900. The act combats the trafficking in illegal wildlife, fish and plants. The relevance of this act to woodworkers is in an amendment effective May 22nd 2008 where the act was extended to cover illegal logging on a worldwide basis. In short it is now an offence to import wood or wooden items into the USA that violates any US or foreign laws. It is also now compulsory for a US importer or individual to submit an import declaration to the US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). The country of origin, botanical name, quantity and value are required information on these declarations and wrongdoers can expect incarceration up to 5 years, forfeiture of the goods, or a fine of up to $500,000.

We as exporters face the potential seizure and/or destruction of the items we are exporting. This is as much a problem if the item is fully paid for or not because of the loss of the goodwill of our American customers. I think in view of the potential misery the importers in the USA face when submitting Lacey act information that we should be prepared to render all the information they need prior to sending the product.

Rosewood log

Species name and country of origin of the different types of wood that I sell can be found in my catalogue - view here. I can give more information if required. I gather from my limited research that the US government is not planning to make public any kind of database of the countries or the types of wood that they are watching out for. We must therefore be vigilant about the legality of the timbers we are using and hope not to get caught out. You can read more about my thoughts on the environmental issues here on Timberline's information site. This brings me back to the Gibson raid.

Gibson guitars in Nashville are under investigation regarding an import of Madagascar Rosewood and Madagascar Ebony purchased from a large exotic hardwood specialist in Germany. For many years small supplies of Madagascar rosewood (Dalbergia baroni) have been snapped up by guitar makers for guitar backs and sides because it has such a close resemblance to the much loved but endangered Brazilian rosewood (Dalbergia nigra) both in appearance and tone. The price of it has always been so high and the availability so small that it has only ever been used on very high end and special edition instruments.

There are thought to be about 48 species of Dalbergia(the rosewood genus) in Madagascar. The species that I have seen in my career are Dalbergia greveana, baroni and maritima. I assume therefore that they are the most commonly traded from that country.

Zitan Board, Exotic HardwoodsJust as we have found the Dalbergia baroni to be a dead ringer for an historically important and desirable wood from our craft culture, the Chinese have found Dalbergia maritima to be a dead ringer for Zitan wood (pictured), probably the most desired wood historically from their craft culture. We know Dalbergia maritima as ‘Violet rosewood’ or ‘bois du rose’. The appeal to buyers in the U.K. is limited because the beautiful violet colour is transient and darkens down to a very deep purple black very quickly. This change that is apparently a disappointment according to the feedback I got when I had some of this specie in stock 10 or so years ago.

Exotic Hardwoods Furniture

Historically, Zitan wood furniture was reputedly reserved for exclusive use of the Chinese Imperial court. There has always been a ready market for these rare pieces amongst connoisseurs around the world. A new market for Zitan wood furniture has arisen in recent years with the huge expansion in numbers of the Chinese nouveau riche. It is a feature of the newly wealthy that they often feel the need to celebrate their success by flouting their wealth in rather visible ways and one way the Chinese do it is to have furniture such as the old Chinese emperors had. The demand for Dalbergia maritima in China seems to be almost limitless.

Chinese timber buyers are not known for their restraint. The Madagascar government has never been well resourced and the only effective form of control that they have is to impose the export bans that have been occurring regularly, on and off, for many years. These bans are normally imposed on a ‘cover all’ basis including all the other precious and desirable species from the island. I take the view that the ban on the timbers I am interested in was necessary to make the ban workable and I was pleased to get small stocks here and there when legal exports were considered appropriate by the Madagascar government.

Early in 2009 the government in Madagascar effectively collapsed into anarchy and for a long period the country has been lawless. There was such potential for a small number of people to amass huge fortunes from the ‘Bois du rose’ trade that the next step was obviously to amass and ship as much of this wood as possible, as quickly as possible, to China. There have been reports of blatant illegal logging in the Marojejy and Masoala national parks where good concentrations of these woods could readily be found, along with reports of frightening numbers of containers of these logs being shipped to China. It is not therefore a surprise that the US authorities considered the wood at Gibson guitars worthy of investigation.

Robert Smith, Timberline proprietor.