HICKSVILLE, N.Y.—It is not often manufacturing executives, environmental groups and union officials hold hands on a common issue, so when this rare event does occur, the “powers that be” listen. This despite the uproar and political lobbying from Gibson Guitars and others in the music industry.
The issue at hand deals with the 2008 revisions to the then 100- year-old Lacey Act— which bans imports of illegally sourced wood, paper and other forest products into the U.S.— and a proposed bill aimed at weakening the law.
It started two years ago when a Gibson factory was raided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for illegally sourced wood from Madagascar. Then, earlier this year, another Gibson facility was raided for wood that came through India and was supposedly mislabeled to avoid extra taxes from that country.
Following the second raid, Henry Juszkiewicz, Gibson’s CEO, began a public relations campaign claiming Lacey not only jeopardized American jobs by making it hard for the guitar maker to compete, it put every-day, law-abiding citizens in harm’s way because the government could potentially confiscate their musical instrument—or grandma’s mahogany dining room table—if it had any rare wood.
It worked. Reps Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn) and Mary Bono Mack (R- Calif.), introduced H.R. 3210 on Oct. 20 a bill otherwise known as the Relief Act.
In response, Lisa Handy, senior policy adviser for the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), said the proposal “basically [guts] the law as it is cur-rently enacted.”
Others have expressed alarm at the prospect of undoing a law that took years to enact and has served as a model for other nations crafting their own illegal logging measures. In fact, a month prior to the proposed amendment, the Lacey Act was recognized by the United Nations as “one of the three most inspiring and innovating pieces of national legislation to protect the world’s forests.”
So, in addition to two letters sent to Congress, one by wood-related organizations such as the National Wood Flooring Association, and the other by environmental groups and workers’ unions expressing concern 3210 “diminishes the effectiveness of the Lacey Act” and would actually hurt U.S. jobs, the group has led its own campaign to stop the bill in its tracks.
“The U.S. forest products industry produces about $175 billion in products annually and employs nearly 900,000 [people] in good paying jobs,” 3210 opponents note. “The industry meets a payroll of approximately $50 billion annually and is among the top 10 manufacturing sector employers in 47 states.”
Don Finkell, president of Shaw Hard Surfaces/Anderson, who as a member of the Hardwood Federation board participated in a media conference call that included EIA’s Handy; Roy Houseman of the United Steelworkers; Jake Schmidt, International Climate Policy Director for the Natural Resources De- fense Council, and Jameson French, CEO of Northland Forest Products and a Hardwood Federation board member. The purpose, as Finkell told FCNews, was to “clear misperceptions about Lacey and answer any questions,” noting, “there are a lot of misconceptions about it and why the proposed bill would be a disaster.”
One of the things he pointed out is in the area of jobs. “Shaw and Anderson actually employ more people in Tennessee than Gibson.”
Another deals with having your guitar or dining room table confiscated. Interestingly, from the very beginning, the Department of Justice said it will not go after nor prosecute owners or consumers. It went so far as to issue a press release on this. Even Cooper, who used the scare tactic when introducing the bill, admitted as such.
In the end, it appears the combined forces of those normally at odds with each other will win as 3210 has yet to be presented at a Congressional committee, including those on which the sponsors sit.
Grace Terpstra of Terpstra Associates has been working with those opposing the proposal and told FCNews, “We’ve been getting the word out to the right places and have been able to do a great deal of damage control.”
She added in mid-September when Gibson began pushing for changes, “We were at a 7 or 8 in terms of Congressional traction. Now I’d put it at 3.”
Nonetheless, Terpstra said the groups are “not letting up. We’re working on another letter to the House, we met with White House officials; we’re going to stay on top of it until it goes away.”
The one thing flooring mills would like to see is for the government to start enforcing Lacey as it was meant. “What we really need to be doing is going after those who make money importing cheap, illegal wood,” Finkell said. “I’d like to see Lacey enforced more in the mainstream and on big-ticket items like flooring.”
Dan Natkin, director of wood and laminate for Mannington, noted, “We are supportive of Lacey in principle since its design is to reduce illegal logging around the world…Do we agree with every aspect of the act? No. Every legislation has upsides and downsides…Fundamentally, we believe if you knowingly import illegally sourced wood or have not completed the due diligence needed, you are contributing to the problem.”
Unfortunately, he added, Lacey has become “a political firebrand rather than an effective weapon against illegal logging. By and large, it has been a toothless tiger with very few people being found in violation.” What happens next one never knows, Terpstra concluded. “Things get attached to other bills, but considering where this movement was a month ago there are many signs pointing to Lacey being protected.”