Gibson, one of the most celebrated guitar brands, has admitted to using illegal, threatened rainforest wood to make its instruments. The crime came to light after federal agents raided one of the company's supply outlets in Nashville, Tenn.
Subsequently, the company admitted importing illegally harvested wood known as Madagascar ebony for its guitar fretboards. Madagascar is a country that has been severely impacted by deforestation. Gibson must now pay $350,000 in penalties to settle federal charges. Of that sum, $50,000 will be donated to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
The company was found to be in violation of the Lacey Act, which makes it a crime to import wood that was harvested and exported unlawfully under another country's laws.
The Nashville raid occurred August 24, 2011. At that time, the government seized $260,000 worth of ebony and rosewood. That marked the second time Gibson was raided on suspicion of illegal activities; the first was in Memphis during 2009. In both instances, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service argued that the confiscated wood had either been illegally logged in Madagascar, or in violation of Indian export law.
Republicans have used the issue as a window to advocate decriminalization of endangered wood importation and vilify federal intervention in environmental matters. They and the Tea Party called the Nashville raid an "arrogant act of federal power."
The right wing has criticized the Lacey Act - legislation that originally focused on prohibiting the importation, capture, or transportation of wildlife across state lines, but was amended in 2008. At that time, the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 expanded its protection to a broader range of plant life, transforming the Lacey Act into one of the world's toughest laws against the often-illegal wood trade.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) seized the opportunity in May to paint the act as the latest bogeyman responsible for government interference, and proposed the FOCUS (Freedom from Over-Criminalization and Unjust Seizures) Act in response. That act would combat parts of Lacey by removing all references to foreign laws, and by replacing criminal penalties with small fines.
Actor Chuck Norris - also a Republican - also took part in the recent attack on the Lacey Act, suggesting that taxpayers' dollars were being wasted "as federal agents sought to bust another pillar of American business by rounding up alleged tree contraband based upon a century-old law."
But environmental activists argue that the portions of the Lacey Act that Republicans seek to obliterate are vital to the preservation of both the environment and the American timber industry.
Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz made a number of troubling statements on the matter, remarking that he believes his company is very "forward-thinking," and that "true legislative reform is necessary to avoid systemic criminalization of capitalism."
As numerous environmental activists, scientists, and ecologists understand, capitalism is viewed as anathema to both environmental and social progress.
Gibson later recognized, in a statement, that valuable wood species in Madagascar faced considerable risk, and that the country dealt with the very serious problem of de-forestation.
Madagascar is reportedly experiencing a loss of biodiversity due to that deforestation, which experts blame on human interference and economic activities.
Photo: Gibson Guitar CEO Henry Juskiewicz mimicked Republicans' claims that a raid on a Nashville Gibson supply outlet was another sign of what they call "government overreach." Samuel M. Simpkins/AP & The Tennessean