Guitar makers worried about wood import law

After a guitar shop was raided last year, instrument makers want clarification on a law that protects endangered trees. Here, a shop keeper tunes a guitar in his instrument shop.

Adriene Hill: Musicians, record producers and music teachers gathered this weekend at the National Association of Musical Merchants -- or NAMM -- trade show. You'd think a convention featuring musical instruments would be pretty controversy free. I mean, they're instruments.

But, as Marketplace's Eve Troeh reports, some guitars have created a bit of an environmental hub-bub.


Eve Troeh: In the Martin Guitar booth at the NAMM trade show, players reverently picked up instruments on display. Some cost tens of thousands of dollars.

What makes them so precious? Often, the wood. Much of it's rare or endangered.

George Gruhn: Looks like probably Engelmann spruce, Madagasgar rosewood. That's mahogany, that's ebony.

George Gruhn runs Gruhn Guitars in Nashville.

Gruhn: Each wood has its own sound and its own function in the guitar.

And each kind of wood has to be listed -- genus, species and country of origin -- if you want to export that guitar. That's been the rule since 2008, part of the Lacey Act to curb trade in endangered trees. Gruhn says dealers like him are nervous about that law these days, because last year the federal government raided Gibson Guitars, and seized pallets full of rosewood and ebony of questionable origin.

Anne Middleton is with the Environmental Investigative Agency. Her group tracked that wood from Madagascar.

Anne Middleton: The fact that when it crossed U.S. borders it happened to be in the hand of Gibson Guitars was out of our control. We did not target the music industry.

Nevertheless, some music makers feel attacked. Their trade group, NAMM, is now lobbying to rework the law.

Mary Luehrsen: Not to create any special rules, just to seek clarity.

Mary Luehrsen directs government policy for NAMM. She says other industries like paper, furniture and flooring import much more wood than instrument makers.

Luehrsen: And I think the fear is really around other interests piling onto our legislative fix.

Environmental groups say NAMM's efforts to make exceptions could open the door for other industries to skirt the law.

Madagascar-born musician Razia Said sang outside the NAMM show in protest. She says only strict trade laws can protect forests in her home country, because the Madagascar government is in chaos.

Razia Said: People cutting wood from national parks. Just imagine if people would go to Yellowstone and just cut some trees.

She says even if the music industry is not the main culprit, it should do all it can to set a good example.

I'm Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.

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