Environmental, industry groups push back against Gibson Guitar

A coalition of environmental groups and wood product companies is launching a public relations counteroffensive against what they describe as misinformation promoted by Gibson Guitar.

The groups want to protect the Lacey Act, which Gibson is under investigation for possibly violating. Gibson, led by its CEO Henry Juszkiewicz, has decried the government investigation as bullying and harassment.

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Government raids of Gibson factories last month have become a rallying cry for conservatives who see them as emblematic of an overreaching federal government.

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) invited Juszkiewicz to sit with him during President Obama's address to Congress last week, and he mentioned the company in his own jobs speech last week as an example of how excessive government regulation can destroy jobs.

"Gibson is a well-respected American company that employs thousands of people," Boehner said. "The company’s costs as a result of the raid? An estimated $2-3 million. Why? Because Gibson bought wood overseas to make guitars in America. Seriously."

The Lacey Act makes it a crime to import plants or wildlife into the U.S. if those goods were obtained in a way that violated the laws of another country.

Conservatives have ridiculed the idea that government agents would raid American factories to enforce foreign laws.

The Lacey Act is a century-old statute, but it was amended to protect plants in only 2008. That change was a victory for a rare alliance of environmental and industry groups, who usually find themselves on the opposite sides of issues.

Now, they are worried that the publicity surrounding the Gibson case could spur changes to the law.

Environmental groups support the Lacey Act because they say it protects forests and the species that depend on them. 

“Cutting down trees is not in of itself a bad thing,” said Andrea Johnson, forest campaign director for the Environmental Investigation Agency, a nonprofit advocacy group. “But when you cut down trees in an unregulated way, you end up doing environmental damage.”

She said illegal logging would destroy forests all over the world, including rain forests.

The wood industry supports the law because it says it's unfair to force it to compete with illegal loggers.

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Jameson French, CEO of Northland Forest Products and the former chairman of the Hardwood Federation, a trade association, said illegal loggers evade environmental and trade laws and sell their products cheaper than law-abiding companies can.

French said he is "flabbergasted by the misinformation that’s been put out there" by Gibson. In particular, he said that rather than costing jobs, the Lacey Act has “saved a lot of American jobs” by protecting American wood companies from illegal competition.

The coalition has been meeting with lawmakers to explain why they believe the Lacey Act is important. They held a briefing for congressional staffers last week and will host a teleconference on Tuesday to "reveal the truth about the Lacey Act and the impact of illegal logging on American jobs and endangered forests."

Juszkiewicz, Gibson's CEO, says he is not trying to repeal the Lacey Act and that he supports efforts to combat illegal logging.

He said the law should be changed to make it more clear. It requires companies to use “due care” not to import wood that was harvested illegally but does not explicitly define what that requirement entails. 

“You shouldn’t pass a law unless you’re very specific about how to abide by it,” he said in an interview.