Gibson Guitars: Environmentally Out-of-Tune

In a wretched display of government’s sometimes overzealous and tone-deaf enforcement of environmental laws, the good people at the Department of Justice have finally succeeded in bullying Gibson Guitars into paying large fines to make a nasty environmental case go away. But while the DoJ celebrates, the fact is this case is anything but a win for environmental protection. Like the EPA official who wanted to ‘crucify’ oil companies, once again the environmental enforcers in our bureaucracies are the worst enemies of our environmental laws.

The story begins in 2008, but first, a quick trip in time: In 1900, Congress enacted the Lacey Act, the nation’s first law to protect wildlife. The Lacey Act made it a federal crime to transport illegally taken game (wildlife) across state and international boundaries. The law was absolutely needed to criminalize illegal hunting and poaching of game animals in the U.S. and elsewhere. For reference, today it’s the Lacey Act that will get you arrested for importing elephant ivory and the like. It’s a good law.

In 2008, Congress amended the Lacey Act to include the illegal transportation and importation of protected plants and plant products. The amendment was partly a response to deforestation and the domestic importation of wood and wood products protected by environmental laws in other countries. At the time, it seemed like a good amendment to the Lacey Act.

But the government had to flex its muscles. In a show of force designed more to appease environmental groups and domestic wood companies than to protect the environment, armed federal agents (armed? they must really hate Stairway to Heaven) raided the Gibson Guitar company, not once but twice, to seize guitars and wood alleged to have been illegally imported. This started a nasty fight between Gibson Guitar and the feds, with a lot of people jumping in to take sides in the fight.

For many months, Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz strongly defended his company against the government’s case. That was until August 6, when Gibson Guitar settled the case brought by the DoJ for at least $350,000. Gibson still doesn’t admit guilt, and still has plenty of allies arguing its case.

Think what you will of the case – just google ‘Gibson Guitar Lacey Act’ and you can read every side of the issue – the problem remains that the idiots at DoJ managed to give everyone involved a black eye: Gibson Guitar, the DoJ, Congress, and the Lacey Act. Some members of Congress and outside groups are now mobilizing to amend the law, and frankly, the way the government has enforced it in this case, maybe they have a point. It all along seemed to me that the case hung on a technicality, and any domestic law that seeks to enforce the text of foreign laws – written in a foreign language and in a foreign context – is something of which we should be very wary.

I’m not arguing for a free pass for those who break environmental laws. I am going to advocate to you and any others who will listen that the government needs to proceed with some sense of caution on these big showcase environmental cases. In this case we have a new amendment to an old law that, knowing Congress like I do, was poorly written and difficult to implement without trapping people like Gibson Guitar. It seems that, as a first test of this new law, DoJ could have taken a more tactful approach rather than go in with guns blazing and press secretaries firing away. But at times our government has the self-control of a child; the result is a huge mess for a very successful American guitar company (that will likely be shipping some jobs overseas to comply with the DoJ’s Lacey Act interpretation), and a lot of people like me who, after 112 years of success, are beginning to question the Lacey Act. This is what we call a fail, DoJ.

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