To get ideas for articles, I subscribe to lots of press releases and music manufacturing news feeds to stay current on the happenings in the gear world. Over the past few years, there has been increasing activity in the realm of guitar building materials; specifically, tonewoods made from increasingly reduced supplies. For instance, Indian Rosewood is becoming increasingly expensive and much less available.
But in addition to the discussions focused on scarcity and perhaps eventual complete lack of availability of tonewoods has been a lot of buzz about conservation law regarding the importation of various woods products. Recently, I happened upon an article that talked about the expansion of the Lacey Act of 1900 under H.R. 2419 Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008. The Lacey act was put into law to prevent illegal harvesting of various protected flora and fauna. Apparently, according to the article, the expansion of the Lacey Act by the new act of 2008 dealt with not just the importation of newly taken or harvested material, but finished products consisting of illegal material, such as antiques made from Brazilian rosewood and tortoise shell.
Yikes! That’s really expansive. I suppose the gist of the law is to be extremely stringent with imported material and including processed material as well as raw material. I actually read the law (which you can read here), and in section 8204 sub-section (a) under Definitions, the law states:
(1) IN GENERAL- The terms `plant’ and `plants’ mean any wild member of the plant kingdom, including roots, seeds, parts, or products thereof, and including trees from either natural or planted forest stands.
The words “or products thereof” are the kicker that make antiques or other processed plant material applicable under the law.
So what is the law? Basically, this section of the law requires that any material imported that falls under the definition as a plant or plant produc, must have adequate documentation to prove its legality. So a company that imports plant products, i.e. exotic woods for guitars, must provide detailed documentation to customs officials when requested. If documentation is inadequate or non-existent, the company will be subject to fines.
That’s not unreasonable, and its strictness should be a great deterrent from importing illegal woods. BUT, as the Music Trades article discussed, it’s not the actual enforcement of the law that is really the problem, but the compliance with the law, as assembling and maintaining that documentation can involve significant administration expense. Companies wishing to file electronically may do so, but only through a special machine that costs $50,000! For small companies, that expense could possibly be prohibitive to running the business.
The law is well-intentioned, but I do feel that it is overly comprehensive. “Or products thereof” makes compliance difficult, especially with previously processed material like antiques that potentially could be 100 years old! I don’t disagree that there should be fairly stringent laws regarding the importation of illegal plant products, but to include already processed material, where the documentation just doesn’t exist, is a little extreme from my perspective. What this means to us as consumers is that you know what companies will do with the extra expense: They’ll have no choice but to pass that on to their customers.
But irrespective of the requirements of the law creating expense, let’s face it: Exotic woods are becoming more and more scarce, so prices will go up anyway. But perhaps this impending scarcity or unavailability could be used as an opportunity to find suitable replacement woods. For instance, I have a guitar made of walnut. Walnut has the warmth and resonance of mahogany, and better yet, it’s a easily renewable resource, in abundant supply. For forward-looking companies, this could an opportunity to move the market.
All this may have no bearing on our purchase decisions now, but it is certain that in the future the woods we’ve come to rely on for our tone today, will most probably radically different. The litigation revolving around this only enforces that idea.