The Conservative Obsession with Gibson Guitars, Small Businesses’ Real Needs, and the Cost of Illegal Logging

After Gibson Guitars was raided by federal regulators for the second time this year, the company’s chief executive, Henry Juszkiewicz, parlayed the company’s legal troubles into a publicity windfall, casting himself as a victim of overregulation and overzealous enforcement of import laws. And he became a Republican celebrity when Rep. Marsha Blackburn brought Juszkiewicz as her plus-one to President Obama’s jobs speech. But environmental advocates say that fears about what the law that Gibson fell afoul of, the Lacey Act, mean for American consumers are overblown, and suggest the Republican rush to embrace Gibson isn’t the best way to show support for American small business owners. “No one is coming to take your Les Paul guitar,” said Andrea Johnson, the Forest Campaign director for the non-profit Environmental Investigation Agency on a conference call. “Companies can and are complying with this law.”

The Lacey Act, first passed in 1900 and expanded in 2008, is the first federal wildlife protection law, and is essentially intended to prevent the sale of illegally killed, captured, or harvested material in the United States. The original intent was to stop poachers who were killing endangered species in one state and selling them in another. Now, it’s intended to block the demand for wood illegally harvested from places like Madagascar’s national parks or protected Indonesia forests. But it’s also been a boon to domestic hardwood manufacturers who saw their business decimated by the collapse of the housing market and ongoing recession.

“Perhaps they didn’t really do the research before they jumped on the bandwagon,” said Jameson French, chairman of the Hardwood Federation, which represents American producers. “I can assure you that large numbers of the 13,000 small businesses that are members of the Hardwood Federation many of them are Tea Party and many of them are Republican voters, the vast majority of them are…I think the small businessman is saying ‘What’s going on here? We like the Lacey Act. It’s helped keep jobs in our facility.'”

And Johnson says that using the law to cut the demand for illegal timber can help preserve the environment and fuel development in the countries hit hardest by illegal logging.

“[The Indonesian] government estimated that illegal logging was stealing $4 billion annually from government revenue. This is revenue that could have been going to school and social services and instead is going to the pockets of corrupt timber barons,” she said. “This wood is entirely cut for export to China, the EU, and the US. No one’s building houses out of rosewood in Madagascar.”

Charlie Redden, the supply chain manager for Taylor Guitars (the person responsible for making sure the company doesn’t purchase illegally harvested materials for use in the instruments it produces), says that voluntary compliance simply hadn’t worked.

“We can be musicians and we can be environmentalists and businesspeople and users of wood in this post-Lacey world but we all have to work together to make this work for everyone,” he said. “We all believe that at some point we’re going to run out of our favorite species…We all want to continue to enjoy those but we have to be very responsible with how we do that.”

Glenn Hurowitz, of environmental consulting firm Climate Advisers, suggested that the conservative rush to embrace Gibson was partially the result of foreign influence on the American debate over timber regulations. In March, the New York Times published a story about the Institute for Liberty, a Tea Party group that’s taken up a campaign that closely aligns with the interests of Asia Pulp & Paper, an Indonesian company that’s been under fire for its logging practices and broader environmental record. Hurowitz said he didn’t mean to suggest that the support for Gibson was funded by foreign companies, but said that efforts like the Institute for Liberty’s campaign to end tariffs on paper imports from Asia meant that conservative groups were primed to be receptive to Gibson’s complaints.

In Henry Juszkiewicz, Republicans may have found a spokesman for overregulation who was primed for national media attention. But as is usually the case, it’s not so simple to just declare that deregulation is in the best interests of small businesses and to call it a day.