Saving Ducks and Confiscating Guitars

posted by Chad Tragakis

A good law gets better


by Chad Tragakis, Senior Vice President, Hill & Knowlton, Washington


The United Nations has declared 2010 to be the International Year of Biodiversity.


There are many definitions for biodiversity, but the one adopted by the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity is: “the variability among living organisms from all sources, including, ‘inter alia’, terrestrial, marine, and other aquatic ecosystems, and the ecological complexes of which they are part: this includes diversity within species, between species and of ecosystems”.


Preserving the world’s ecosystems and the web of life they each support is a good and noble goal in and of itself.  But by preserving biodiversity we are really ensuring our own health, safety, economic security, and our very way of life.  So this year, global institutions of all kinds, government agencies, and even corporations are coming together to celebrate the variety of life on planet Earth, and the value and importance it has for us humans. 


From supporting and advancing agriculture, medicine and tourism, to combating climate change, biodiversity has real bottom line benefits for our global society.  If you’ve never seen it, The United Nations Environment Programme issued a great report on the topic, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB).


But how do we make the goal of protecting species and ecosystems real?  How do we preserve biodiversity?  One way is through policies and laws with teeth, and through the rigorous enforcement of those laws.  One such law is the Lacey Act.


Named for Iowa congressman John Lacey (1841–1913), the politician who introduced the conservation measure in 1900, the law made it illegal to transport certain species of game animals, particularly ducks and other waterfowl, across state lines.  By the late nineteenth century, professional market hunters were killing hundreds of thousands of migratory birds to supply the nation’s growing taste for wild duck and to satisfy the millinery industry’s demand for feathers (fashion at the time called for feathers of all shapes, sizes and colors).  The Lacey Act was a direct response to this wanton and unsustainable slaughter.


The Lacey Act was subsequently amended and strengthened several times over the years, but almost 108 years to the day it was signed into law by President William McKinley, it was granted far greater significance.  The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 expanded the scope of plants and plant products protected under the Lacey Act (think: timber, wood and paper).


This change caught many companies off guard, and this past November, in the first major enforcement action of the newly strengthened Lacey Act, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents raided the Nashville, Tennessee facilities of the Gibson Guitar Corporation.  According to various reports, federal agents and local police seized raw wood, guitars, computers and company files – all stemming from allegations that Gibson was in possession of illegally harvested rosewood, a popular hardwood used in crafting guitars.  It’s unclear if the wood itself was a protected species of rosewood, or if the issue was its source, since Madagascar’s forests are home to several species of critically endangered lemurs.


What is perhaps most puzzling about this incident is that Gibson was a recognized leader in responsible sourcing.  They are a major purchaser of Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood, and obtain FSC-chain-of-custody certificates for much, though not all, of their raw material. Like their competitor C. F. Martin & Co., Gibson even launched a series of environmentally-conscious guitars, including the SmartWood Les Paul model.  And Gibson’s chairman and CEO, Henry Juszkiewicz, was a member of the board of the Rainforest Alliance (he has since stepped down in the wake of this issue).


Regardless of the ultimate outcome of the investigation for Gibson (and any fines, lawsuits, protests, or boycotts – not to mention lost sales that result), this was a public relations headache that the company did not need.


The World Resources Institute has developed a Lacey Act fact sheet designed to give companies an overview on the expanded law and a primer on compliance and risk.  Business leaders tasked with managing corporate responsibility and sustainability would do well to familiarize themselves with this resource.


The true value and importance of biodiversity is elegantly and succinctly expressed in this ancient proverb, translated from Malagasy, the national language of Madagascar:


Without the forest, there will be no more water, without water, there will be no more rice.


I’m sure the lemurs (not to mention the ducks), would wholeheartedly agree.


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