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Newsletter #29, March 2007

(Please browse our newsletter archives)

Endangered woods: Immediate action requested

A proposal currently being considered by the board of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna) would restrict international trade in pernambuco wood and would make it virtually impossible for violinists to legally take their bows across international borders. This proposal has spurred NAMM to launch a letter-writing campaign to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which administers the CITES treaty in the U.S. While pernambuco restrictions would not affect guitars, mandolins, banjos, or violins (only the bows), the proposal is indicative of increasingly complex, cumbersome and counter-productive CITES regulations that do affect fretted instruments - new as well as vintage - and, moreover, it is indicative of a growing need for sensible, long-range plans for managing wood resources.

Our immediate concern is the CITES proposal, because it would put pernambuco, Nicaraguan rosewood and Honduran rosewood on Appendix II and would include finished goods as well as raw lumber. Until now, restrictions on finished goods have been on items listed in Appendix I (which includes Brazilian rosewood, ivory and tortoiseshell). While there are many guitars that don't contain Appendix I materials, virtually every good violin bow is made of pernambuco. The permits required to cross international borders with a violin bow will make it effectively impossible for a violinist to legally carry his own bow on an international tour. Furthermore, the proposal, if approved, would set a precedent for listing finished goods on Appendix II that could easily carry over to Honduras mahogany, one of the three mahogany species currently on Appendix II but restricted only for raw lumber. Honduras mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla, aka Brazilian mahogany or bigleaf mahogany) is much more prevalent on guitars than Brazilian rosewood, and a restriction on finished goods would all but kill international guitar trade.

NAMM (the International Music Products Association) has a governmental affairs department that effectively lobbied for the guitar industry when Brazilian rosewood was added to Appendix I in 1992, and NAMM has now issued a call to action on the pernambuco proposal in the form of a letter-writing campaign from their website. The email form can be edited and can be printed for fax or regular mail delivery. We urge everyone to go to the NAMM web page now - and send a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service. We would recommend that you make two points:
1. Finished goods should not be restricted on Appendix II items. 2. A practical process of certification should be implemented so that new and pre-existing finished goods can be permanently certified as to age and materials.

The Fish & Wildlife Service will only accept letters until April 20, so time is of the essence.

We wholeheartedly support the conservation and preservation efforts that CITES represents, and we believe that there are numerous guitar-related woods not yet covered under CITES that are in desperate need of protection and proper management. However, the current state of CITES administration is so cumbersome and illogical that it becomes counter-productive to the goals of the treaty. For example, it would seem easy enough to get a permit to send or carry a 1965 Martin D-28 to Canada or England or to any one of the 170-plus countries that have signed the treaty. That guitar has Brazilian rosewood back, sides and headstock veneer, so according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife website, the owner can get a "pre-CITES certificate" stating that it was made before its materials were listed on Appendix I, which in the case of Brazilian rosewood is 1992. Then you can get a permit for it to leave the United States. The problem starts right there, because there is no such certificate as described in the CITES regulations; there is only the permit. On the permit application Form 3-200-32) you must list all of your guitars that contain CITES-protected material, along with information about the source of that material (including Latin name of the species and country of origin), and you must list the address of the recipient, which is presumably yourself if you are a traveling musician. The fee for a single shipment is $100 and the processing time is up to 60 days.

That permit will get your guitar out of the U.S. but to get it into another country you will need a reciprocal permit from that country. If you travel on to yet another country, you will need permits from the country you are leaving and from the one you are entering. The only time you will not need a separate permit for a border crossing is when you re-enter the U.S.; your export permit is also valid as an import permit. Technically, according to regulations, you can only bring a CITES-protected plant or plant product into the U.S. through one of only 12 PPQ (Plant Protection and Quarantine) inspection stations; we believe that this requirement is not applied to finished goods such as a guitar, but the published regulations make no such exception. This would be a good point to insert a disclaimer: This information is based on our understanding and interpretation of CITES regulations, but we certainly can not guarantee that various governmental agencies in the 170-plus signatory countries will act consistently or in accordance with our interpretation. However, it is likely that international travel will involve a CITES-signatory country, as only 27 have not signed the treaty, the most prominent of which are Korea, Iraq and Lebanon. (Complete lists of signatory and non-signatory countries)

Even if you have all the proper permits for Brazilian rosewood, if the saddle and nut on your 1965 D-28 are original, you are still in violation of CITES. That's because the saddle and nut are of elephant ivory. Although CITES didn't come into existence until 1974, the treaty restricts ivory to pieces predating 1947, and reworked ivory from pre-1947 products still counts as new ivory. And don't even think about carrying a tortoiseshell (Hawksbill see turtle) pick. To get a permit for tortoiseshell, you must be able to prove that it has been a guitar pick for at least 100 years; if it was reworked from a hairbrush or some other antique within the last 100 years, then it is not exempt from CITES.

Enforcement of guitar-related CITES regulations has in the past been relatively lax and in some countries non-existent. Many guitar dealers as well as individuals have been "slipping by" these regulations and simply not declaring (or mis-declaring) CITES-covered materials. However, we have recently seen tighter enforcement, such as a shipment of new guitars from China being impounded by U.S. Customs for lack of documentation, and we can expect it to get even tighter. If you don't believe it, you only have to look at CITES section of the Fish & Wildlife website. On the page dealing with shipments of "antiques," the only antiques specifically identified are "guitars made of Brazilian rosewood." There is also an illustration of Brazilian rosewood guitar - one of only two illustrations on the page (the other is of ivory products). On the permit application, which covers plants of all kinds, there is a special section for Brazilian rosewood (Dalbergia nigra) with headings for guitar exporters and vintage guitar exporters. Again, no other species, products or businesses (except nurseries) are singled out.

Clearly, compliance with CITES would be much easier and much more effective with a simple certification system - for new instruments as well as for pre-CITES instruments, most of which have serial numbers or period-specific characteristics that can provide accurate dating criteria. These practical, day-to-day problems with CITES warrant more discussion and action. However, there is a much bigger problem looming in the very near future that CITES only begins to address, and that is the dwindling supply of guitar woods, whether covered by CITES or not.

Guitar companies have long been aware of relatively finite wood supplies. Chris Martin, CEO of the Martin company, was perceived in the early 1990s as the boy who cried "Wolf" when he began talking about a day when there would simply be no more wood available for guitars. Martin's D1 of 1992, the first modern Martin with laminated sides, was developed as the first step in redesigning a guitar specifically for laminated materials. Today, Martin's X-series models feature non-wood HPL (high pressure laminate) back and sides and a multi-laminate neck of apple wood. The models with an HPL top still leave something to be desired in terms of tone, but the spruce-top models, such as the DX1, prove that good-sounding guitars can be made from eco-friendly materials. (More on spruce to follow.)

Chris Martin has also tried to lead the way to more sustainable tone woods by using cherry wood instead of mahogany. Although cherry wood is widely used in furniture and was once known as American mahogany, guitar buyers have not yet been willing to make the switch. Martin's substitution - or mixing - of sapele wood (aka African mahogany) with other mahoganies in its Style 17 guitars has been successful.

Gibson took the initiative in the electric guitar market in 1996 by introducing the Les Paul Smartwood. It marked the beginning of a relationship with the Rainforest Alliance (Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz sits on the board), a conservation organization that certifies wood for the Forestry Stewardship Council as having come from responsibly managed forests. In addition to making a publicity splash with various Smartwood models, Gibson quietly began working certified wood into regular production. The percentage of FSC-certified mahogany used in Gibsons went from 1 percent in 2003 to 22 percent in 2005 and to 40 percent in 2006. In addition, all of Gibson's domestic wood is certified except for figured maple.

Guitarmakers have substituted East Indian rosewood (Dalbergia latifolia) for Brazilian since 1969. Although it has been heavily logged in India, the Indian government is apparently managing its rosewood now such that it is not endangered. Other exotic substitutes for Brazilian rosewood, such as cocobolo (Dalbergia retusa), bubinga (Guibourtia demeusei) or Madagascar rosewood (Dalbergia baronii) are not in plentiful supply and should protected, but at present Brazilian rosewood is the only Dalbergia of any kind on CITES Appendix I, II or III.

When it comes to the top of an acoustic guitar, some cedar and redwood provide different tonal colorings than spruce, but for all practical purposes, there is no substitute for close-grain spruce. Guitarmakers put a premium on red spruce (Adirondack spruce), which was used by Martin and Gibson prior to World War II. Those companies switched to Sitka spruce because red spruce was in short supply. Now Sitka stands in Alaska are being depleted, and there is no quick and easy solution. Spruce trees that have 20 grain lines to the inch must be close to 200 years old to provide a top for a dreadnought acoustic guitar, and some trees are as old as 500 years. The demand for Adirondack tops has made wider-grained wood more acceptable, but our generation will obviously not be able to benefit from any replanting of spruce trees in our lifetimes. In the meantime, we can continue to try to develop substitutes, and we can make the most efficient and conscientious use of the spruce that we do have.

CITES treats the symptoms of the problem of endangered species, but it's like trying to cure alcoholism by outlawing alcohol. Some people would stop drinking, but others would continue to demand alcohol, which would create a market for illegal alcohol at higher prices. CITES certainly slows the flow of endangered species, but it also creates a black market. And it does not appear to allow for a "managed comeback" that might be attainable through proper management of resources. Nile crocodiles, for example, are reproducing quite well in captivity and could provide hides for commercial use without adversely affecting populations in the wild. Ivory from elephants that have died of natural causes is usually destroyed along with confiscated poached ivory. In both of these cases, the reintroduction of materials - with proper certification - could undermine the black market and, if some or all of the profits were reinvested in enforcement, could further curtail poaching.

Most animals reproduce and reach maturity faster than trees reach harvestable size, so the solutions for guitar woods are more difficult to implement and will take much longer. While we can easily imagine a time in the near future when "all-wood" instruments will bring premium prices for dealers of vintage fretted instruments, we would prefer that our wood resources be handled with the same care with which we handle our instruments, so that fine guitars can continue to be produced as we know them.

George Gruhn and Walter Carter

More links...
FAQ document, from Wales, very informative for traveling musicians.
CITES home page.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service permit page.
List of common and Latin names for wood species. Also see CITES database search.