A Gibson guitar

In August of 2011, the usually boring world of guitar production was jolted by the arrival of federal agents at three Gibson guitar facilities in Tennessee. The agents executed a search warrant and seized large quantities of Madagascar Ebony and Indian Rosewood thought to have been imported by Gibson in violation of a United States law known as the Lacey Act.

In some respects a law ahead of its time, the Lacey Act was signed into effect by President William McKinley in 1900. The Act prohibited the transfer of illegally captured or prohibited animals across state lines, meaning that you can’t poach animals in one state and sell them in a state where they are legal. The law was intended to stop the over hunting of birds for hat plumes and prevent the introduction of invasive species into native ecosystems.

In 2008, the Lacey Act was amended to apply to a wider variety of illegally obtained plant and animal products, including wood and paper. It was further amended to apply to international trade, banning the sale of products that had been harvested and exported in violation of the laws of another country. Basically, the Act takes away the US market for illegal game and plant products such as elephant ivory.

As it would turn out, the wood used to construct guitars has a dark environmental past. Through at least the late 1960s the back panel and sides of acoustic guitars were often made from Brazilian rosewood, as were the fretboards (front side of the guitar neck) of some electrics.

The rosewood was obtained by the over harvesting of Brazil’s coastal forests. Not unlike mahogany logging, rosewood logging was a “cut down a hundred trees so you can get to one” scenario. By the late 1960s supplies were so low that guitar makers switched to obtaining rosewood from India and Madagascar. In 1992, Brazilian rosewood was designated an endangered species of flora under the CITES treaty and its importation was permanently banned. Guitars with Brazilian rosewood are still built within the US from wood imported before 1992 (mostly re-purposed planks) but you’re looking at a hefty purchase price.

Shifting the source of rosewood to other countries, of course, didn’t necessarily make its harvest sustainable. The only apparent success story in this regard seems to be India, which has banned the export of wild harvested North Indian Rosewood since 1927. Indian rosewood can only be obtained from the Indian Forestry Service and is often sourced from plantations.

Madagascar’s rosewood, as well as likewise endangered ebony and mahogany trees, are also in danger of being logged to extinction. In 2009, an attempted coup in in that country caused a power vacuum in which thousands of trees were illegally logged from national forests, much of it destined for the furniture industry in China. Following the coup and explosion of illegal logging, guitar makers like C.F. Martin Guitar Co. ceased using wood from Madagascar.

Gibson, headed by CEO Henry Juszkiewicz, had no such compunctions and continued to source wood from Madagascar. Gibson was in fact a frequent flyer – it had been raided by the Department of Wildlife less than two years before the 2011 raid over illegally sourced Madagascar Rosewood and Mahogany.

Following the 2011 raid, Gibson behaved like a small-town car repair shop busted for dumping motor oil in the river. Juszkiewicz screeched about government over-regulation and claimed that he was being targeted by unions because of his conservative political beliefs. The right wing press jumped on board, claiming that the government was regulating the “right to rock.” Eventually Juszkiewicz shut up and paid a $300,000.00 fine along with forfeiting the ebony valued at $261,844.00.

Unlike the ebony, Gibson convinced the feds that the Indian rosewood seized in the 2011 raid was legal and was permitted to keep it. To protest being caught for their reprehensible conduct, Gibson used the wood to create around 1,750 guitars it branded as the “Government Series.” The series included Les Pauls and other electrics stamped with a bald eagle holding a guitar and painted “gunmetal grey” and “government tan,” neither of which are particularly attractive. Nothing quite like a millionaire CEO protesting the man by making a bunch of ugly guitars.   

Ten years down the road, the Government Series guitars haven’t become the collector’s items some had hoped they would be.* In 2019, all species of rosewood were added to the CITES treaty. This roughly coincided with Juszkiewicz being replaced as Gibson CEO after driving the company into Chapter 11 bankruptcy by starting a home electronics division. The sky did not fall following either event, and Gibson now manages to make nice guitars without using critically endangered wood. I mean, not like Fender nice, but nice

*if you’re Don Jr. or otherwise interested in advertising to the world that you’re a piece of shit, you can find one on eBay for around their original retail price of $1,100.00.

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