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The Lacey Act, Certification, and Gibson Guitar: Why Trade in Forest Products Protects Forests

by Todd Myers

As a board member of Rainforest Alliance, Gibson Guitar CEO Henry Juszkiewicz didn’t expect to find himself accused of supporting illegal logging. A supporter of Forest Stewardship Council certification, Juszkiewicz is committed to doing what he believes is best for the environment and the world’s forests.

“About 80 percent of our wood is FSC certified,” Juszkiewicz explained to me when we spoke.

Given that experience, he is not the kind of person you would expect to run afoul of the chain of custody challenges that are part of the Lacey Act, a law designed to prevent trade in illegally harvested wood.

Ultimately, his complaints about the Lacey Act’s difficult chain of custody provide some insight into the challenges faced by those looking to comply with certification systems. Indeed, FSC offers itself as a way to meet the requirements of the Lacey Act. After the passage of the recent amendments to the Lacey Act covering illegal harvesting, FSC-US noted, “Forest Stewardship Council certification of wood products promises to be a pivotal tool in providing credible verification of legality for companies importing wood.”

Juszkiewicz’s primary complaint about the current structure of the Lacey Act is simple: There is “no prescription for actually obeying the law.” Gibson Guitar believed they were following the law. They found out, however, that proving it was virtually impossible.

In order to show that wood was harvested and traded legally, the Lacey Act “requires consumers to have knowledge of every piece of wood transferred across country lines,” he says. “That’s not possible for consumers to know.” He laments that even if he has certification that the wood is legal, if those certifications turn out to be inaccurate, the certifiers are not on the hook – the company is.

Juszkiewicz believes the ambiguity of the rules isn’t an accident. He argues that rather than protecting forests, the primary goal of the act is “to protect domestic jobs,” noting, “If you make things risky enough, you are effectively outlawing importation by making it ambiguous and risky.”

The combination of unclear rules and a lack of protection from supply chain certifiers means that even someone committed to sound stewardship of forests can find himself afoul of the law.

It doesn’t have to be like that, however, and Juzkiewicz told me he is working to change the law so it truly helps protect forests. Critical to that effort is providing an economic incentive to grow new forests.

“Underlying most of the positions of the greens is a belief that prohibition will solve the problems,” he laments. “[They believe] punitive laws that prevent cutting any trees will save the rainforest. I think that is poppycock. You have to understand the economic basis of the way societies work. Trees are de facto a sustainable commodity and they can be managed to be sustainable, even in the short run.”

Rather than being an enemy of the forest, international trade in wood is a force to preserve those forests.

“There is no necessity to preclude business. In fact if you understand it, the vast majority of clear cutting forests is for alternative uses, not forestry and cutting trees for guitar guys. As long as the economic benefit of an acre of forested land is higher for alternative use — conversion for agriculture or real estate — people are going to cut that forest down. No amount of armies is going to prevent that from happening. So the best thing to preserve and protect the forests is to make it valuable from an economic standpoint. As a producer of a sustainable, valuable product, the forest can compete. That can make the world better.”

And Juszkiewicz is committed to making the world’s forests better.

When I pointed out that some of the concerns he had with the Lacey Act echoed complaints about FSC certification, he acknowledged it but argued that rather than throw them out, we need to get the Lacey Act and FSC certification “right.”

Speaking of FSC, he says, “I’ve seen the impact on indigenous peoples that has been very positive.” One reason he continues to support certification systems is his belief that non-government organizations have to be part of the effort.

After his experience with the Lacey Act and the Justice Department, it shouldn’t be surprising when he says “I frankly don’t think government does a great job.” He doubts the ability of business to “police itself,” and believes an independent assessment can be useful. That’s why he supported FSC in the first place.

But he wants any system, whether it is certification by an NGO or a law like the Lacey Act, to be clear and to promote good forestry practices rather than punish first. “I want to see a carrot.”

Over the next several months, Juszkiewicz says will be working with Congress to clarify the law and ensure it achieves its intended goal. Whatever the outcome, he believes any system that looks to protect forests must protect the value of forest products.

“If you can’t use the product from an acre of forest, owning that forest as forestland becomes zero value and any alternative use becomes better.” That, he believes, is the worst thing any system of forest rules can do for the forests that provide wood for the plant and his legendary guitars.

Originally posted at Forest Certification Audit.

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