Could musicians fall foul of US environmental law?

A US senator has made it his mission to save musicians from a federal environmental law that could be cited to confiscate the instruments of US performers travelling abroad for the summer concert season. Republic Senator Lamar Alexander from Tennessee (its capital is Nashville, better known as Music City) says that the law should be clarified or ‘tweaked’ if necessary.   “I don’t want the musicians from Nashville who are flying to Canada to perform this summer to worry about the government seizing their guitars,” Alexander said in a statement.

Why seize guitars? Because many of those instruments are made from exotic woods that were outlawed by a 2008 amendment to the century old  Lacey Act, an amendment Alexander himself proposed, by adding wood and forest products to Act, which was  first passed to protect endangered birds whose feathers were being used to decorate womens’ hats,   However, he now seemingly accepts that the law was not meant to apply to musical instruments made pre-2008 and wants to create a ‘safe harbour’ for instruments made before that date – saying “the law was never intended to apply to those instruments”.

It’s no secret that American timber companies were being undercut by foreign sources of wood, many of which were illegally logged and many environmental groups supported Senator Alexander’s  amendment for curbing illegal logging in rainforests by imposing criminal penalties for trading in endangered species of wood. It was that same amendment that allowed federal agents to raid the factories of Gibson Guitars in 2009 and again in 2011 – raids in which substantial quantities of musical instrument-grade wood were seized. It also ignited a firestorm of fear among musicians that their instruments put them at risk to offending, unless they had extensive documentation on when the guitar was made and where the wood was from.

After questions from another Tennesseee republican, Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Fish and Wildlife Service issued a letter assuring musicians that they would not be targeted for “unknowingly” possessing instruments that were manufactured from illegal wood. But now Senator Alexander wants to make clear that the Lacey Act “was not intended to seize instruments made of wood harvested before 2008.” He said he and co-sponsor Senator Ron Wyden (Democrat, Oregon) plan to write a letter to the federal agencies to clarify that point.

Alexander said he hoped to reduce “confusion, uncertainty and paperwork for wood importers and musical instrument manufacturers through administrative regulation.” Failing that, he promised he and Wyden would move to amend the Lacey Act. Alexander also offered an olive branch to Gibson saying “instrument makers like Gibson Guitars in Tennessee are an important part of our music industry. And if the Lacey Act as written is keeping them from being able to get the wood they need to make instruments, we need to make every effort to fix the regulation”. Gibson has had to switch to alternative woods, even composite materials, because they have been unable to import Indian ebony and rosewood since last year’s raid. Buyers of their expensive, high-end products are picky about the type of wood that is used in a Gibson guitar. Gibson is concerned it may lose market share to other manufacturers if it can’t resupply with Indian woods.

The acknowledgement that the Lacey Act may need “fixing” is a significant development in the dispute surrounding Gibson, exotic woods and the musical instrument industry.  And months after the raid against Gibson, there is still no word from the Justice Department whether the company will even face charges.

http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2012/05/18/law-could-be-used-to-seize-musicians-guitars-may-need-fix-senator-says/  and http://www.ottawacitizen.com/sports/Pickin+grinnin+targets+stars+guitars/6651188/story.html and http://www.agreenerfestival.com/2011/10/gibson-its-the-wood-its-the-trees-but-is-it/

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