When armed federal agents searched music-industry icon Gibson Guitar Corp.'s headquarters on Aug. 24, they were looking for Indian wood that may have been illegally exported.
Unwittingly turned up in the process: a political hornet's nest.
As lawmakers tangle over the economic impact of government regulations, the sight of a prominent U.S. company asserting innocence amid scrutiny tied to a little-known environmental law -- in this case, an expansion of the century-old Lacey Act to curb illegal logging -- drew a surge of conservative sympathy to Gibson. But that pro-Gibson rhetoric, echoed by House Republicans and set to culminate at an Oct. 8 tea party rally for the guitarmaker, is drawing strong pushback from Lacey backers in industry as well as conservation groups.
Ultimately, the public relations war over what four senior Republicans called "this heavy-handed enforcement action" may be drowning out the complexities of the debate over Lacey, a species-protection statute that Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz continues to defend even as he criticizes its application.
In an interview with Greenwire, Juszkiewicz embraced the goals of Lacey's 2008 extension to logging. "I believe we need government in this area to ensure that wood is used responsibly," said the Gibson chief, whose star rose on the right after House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) invited him and other employers critical of Obama administration policies to the president's Sept. 8 jobs speech.
Juszkiewicz's concern lies with what he said are Lacey's "ill-formed" elements, particularly a "due care" provision that he believes led to the Fish and Wildlife Service investigating Gibson despite intentions to ship ethically sourced wood for the Les Paul and other popular guitar models.
As for the We Stand With Gibson rally next month, co-hosted by dozens of conservative groups, Juszkiewicz distanced himself from the broader ideology of his newfound supporters.
"I'll embrace everybody who will give me time and visibility on this issue," he said. "The fact is, I think we are a company that's experiencing government overreach, and it's impacting jobs. ... Does that mean I buy into the tea party agenda or against some Democratic agenda or liberal agenda? No."
Though Gibson's CEO claims no affinity for the tea party, some who secured congressional passage of the Lacey logging provisions see a movement to weaken or roll back the statute that already has grown bigger than Juszkiewicz.
"I watched what the tea party did with 'death panels,'" Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), author of a Sept. 19 open letter supporting Lacey, said in an interview of the provision infamously jettisoned from the 2010 health care reform legislation.
"That was bipartisan legislation that everybody supported, and it was turned into something completely bogus," Blumenauer added. "So we're taking it seriously and getting out information on what Lacey does. ... We're still nervous people."
Among those nervous advocates of Lacey's wood provisions, which cleared Congress as part of the 2008 farm bill, are paper and forest companies that view them as a vital tool to prevent profit and job loss to illegal overseas logging. Some of those industry interests joined forces with environmentalists to craft a Lacey expansion aimed at benefiting domestic hardwood producers as well as preventing deforestation (E&E Daily, Nov. 11, 2007).
"We all wanted to help protect the world's forest resources and make sure the owners of forest resources would benefit from their harvest," Hardwood Federation Chairman Jameson French, who runs lumber processor Northland Forest Products, told reporters last week on a call organized by the lobbying firm Glover Park Group and the green public relations shop Climate Advisers.
At the same briefing, green advocate Andrea Johnson warned of "rumblings" on Capitol Hill that the search of Gibson's Nashville headquarters could be used to as an "opportunity to weaken the Lacey Act.
"This has been politicized in an irrational way, in an almost surreal way, and been twisted into a message around jobs," said Johnson, forest campaign director for the nonprofit Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). "Everybody who has a nuanced understanding of this law feels that concerns out there on the part of the music industry can be addressed without opening the statute up."
The American Forest & Paper Association, the capital's leading wood-products trade group, also lent its muscle to the Lacey expansion effort, releasing studies that projected thousands of jobs and $1 billion annually lost to illegal logging.
"AF&PA opposes illegal harvesting practices and the importation of illegally-sourced forest products," spokeswoman Jessica McFaul said via email. "Illegally-sourced raw materials can give global competitors an unfair advantage in the marketplace."
As Gibson challenges FWS's Lacey probe of its Indian wood imports, as well a previous inquiry into Madagascar-sourced wood, company backers frequently cite its partnership with Greenpeace on a campaign to promote use of ethically harvested wood, such as that certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
"What has all the consorting with environmentalists gotten Gibson?" Andrew Langer, president of the tea party group Institute for Liberty, wrote in a Sept. 2 column on the the company's search by FWS. "Government jackboots kicking down doors and bad-mouthing from environmentalists."
Greenpeace forest campaign director Scott Paul defended Juszkiewicz for "show[ing] a lot of leadership" in encouraging FSC-certified wood imports.
"But unfortunately, in a lot of parts of the world FSC has not really taken hold," Paul added in an interview, describing Gibson's current situation as a case study in how the music industry should operate in regions where corruption and instability might prevent organized work on responsible logging.
On that point, Juszkiewicz agreed. "You look at some of these countries that have significant timber resources -- frankly, I'll try not to say it in a hostile manner, but they're pretty screwed up," he said.
"You could want to do the exact right thing, but you're dealing with an environment that's just kind of terrible. A single company can't change a country and can't change practices of countries overnight."
Paul aligned with other environmental and industry backers of Lacey in calling for "further guidance" on enforcement of the anti-logging law "not from Capitol Hill, but from the executive branch." Juszkiewicz left the door open to supporting a regulatory fix for his concerns with the "due care" language, which requires all purchasers to take reasonable steps to prove they did not import illegal wood.
But the Gibson CEO said he wanted to conduct further outreach before deciding whether to urge congressional action to clarify Lacey. "I'm not sure where I weigh in on this point because I haven't talked to enough people," he explained.
While Juszkiewicz took care not to fully endorse a legislative overhaul of Lacey, at least one of his tea party allies plainly described that as a goal. Langer, of the Institute of Liberty, slammed the law for "fundamental underlying deficiencies" that go beyond its wood expansion in 2008 and said his group is working on specific recommendations for lawmakers interested in reopening the statute.
"I didn't think there was going to be any chance in hell that we were going to get any action on the Lacey Act before," Langer said in an interview, calling the Gibson raid "a golden opportunity here for some real action to get done."
That stance puts him squarely at odds with pro-Lacey advocates such as those at Climate Advisers, whose Glenn Hurowitz last week pointed to financial links between Langer's group and Asian paper companies. Those foreign interests seeking to roll back the anti-logging law have "clothed their commercial agenda in the language of tea party and traditional conservatism," Hurowitz said.
Langer pushed back hard at the suggestion that his anti-Lacey push is driven by fiscal rather than ideological motives.
"The bottom line in D.C. is, you don't fight for the situation of free markets, of limited government, without people questioning your donorship," he said, adding that some environmental groups also accept corporate donations "and yet nobody seems to question their motives."
House GOP's perspective
One of Gibson's stalwart allies on the Hill, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), appeared to embrace regulatory guidance in a recent interview on Lacey.
Blackburn, who blasted the FWS search of Gibson in a Sept. 8 letter co-signed by House Energy and Commerce Committee leaders, called it "a cost-effective way" to resolve the company's and the government's concerns.
"Our point in addressing this is to look at the overreach of government, what is perceived to be selective enforcement" rather than any Lacey-specific goals, Blackburn said in an interview. "If Gibson is out of compliance with the Lacey Act, it needs to be in compliance. If there is a misunderstanding, it needs to be cleared up for not only Gibson but all importers."
FWS, while refraining from comment on the still-pending investigation into Gibson wood sourcing, sought this week to publicly dispel what it described as a misunderstanding over potential application of Lacey to musicians' guitars during overseas travel.
"To be clear: individual consumers and musicians are not the focus of any U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement investigations pertaining to the Lacey Act, and have no need for concern about confiscation of their instruments," the agency wrote in a Thursday blog post on the Gibson search.
Blumenauer, the House Democrat, suggested that Boehner himself -- who cited Gibson in a Sept. 15 jobs speech -- also could help correctly brand Lacey in the public eye by touting the domestic wood-industry jobs it is credited with saving.
"People who researched his speech might find there's another story," the lawmaker said, "even though it may conflict with their narrative, which is 'all regulation is bad.' Well, all regulation is not bad -- it protects American jobs."
Click here to read House Energy and Commerce GOP leaders' Sept. 8 letter to agencies involved in the Gibson search.
Click here to read FWS's Sept. 19 response to the House GOP letter.
Click here to read the affidavit FWS filed in conjunction with its Aug. 24 search of Gibson.