By Russ MacRae
Gibson Guitar Corp. settled a criminal enforcement case with the United States recently over their alleged illegal importation of rosewood and ebony from Madagascar and India to make guitar fingerboards. Fingerboards, by the way, are the top portion of the neck of the guitar where, as you might expect, the player presses their fingers to make different notes. For a music aficionado, the better the fingerboard, the better the look and sound of the guitar.
Some considered this another example of the “feds” over-reaching into the well-meaning affairs of a well-respected private company. After all, don’t the feds have better things to do in these tough budget times than make a stink about a few trees? Well, aside from the fact that Gibson seems to have broken the law, they knowingly or not, acted as a small but important cog in the complex mechanics of international environmental degradation. We, like Gibson Guitar Corp., all play a part in in the slow and steady pressure on our environment, and we, Gibson Guitar Corp. and the “feds” all have a duty to do what we can to temper this degradation. More people, more demand, more pressure.
But Fingerboards? Really? How much “environmental degradation” could possibly come from importation of a few fingerboards? Actually, quite a bit. But first, let’s go back in time and talk feathers. Back home here in the U.S. in the early 1900’s, a decent, high-quality woman’s hat just had to have bird feathers, and the showier the better. And hey, if they looked good on hats, why not stuff a few or keep ‘em in cages? Well like so often happens, too much of a good thing, mixed with lots and lots of people wanting that “good thing,” and you start running out. Supply and demand, you know. And that’s what started happening to birds. They started running out. So, we the people made a law, called the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) to inject some temperance in an economically driven, supply and demand governed business. And the bird populations started coming around, and today are here for the grandchildren of our grandchildren to appreciate. Yes, at the time, curtailing feather harvest wasn’t wildly popular, but for many of us, whether we’re wholly conscious of it or not, we feel just a little better about life when we see that flock of birds or hear the meadowlarks sing. And so, I for one want my grandchildren to someday see places like Madagascar (Disney movie version aside) and sit below an ebony Giving Tree.
So back to fingerboards and guitars. The best of the best wood is that deep black ebony that looks and sounds so good. And sort of like a really big, ripe watermelon, some of the “sweetest” darkest wood is in the middle of a very old, big tree. Thus the “grandfather trees” are the most sought after trees in Madagascar and in turn, the most threatened. So, a few fingerboards you say? A tree or two or three? So what? Well, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that in 2011 alone, Gibson imported almost 4,000 board feet of ebony (a board foot is 12” x 12” x 1” thick). While we don’t know the exact size and number of trees cut to get this much ebony, we assumed that the quality of ebony that Gibson would want would have to come from “larger” older trees that are likely 8” or larger in diameter and no more than 25’ tall. If you do the math, that equates to about 800 trees. We can argue the math, but even Gibson admits that they bought wood pieces, not trees, so they don’t even know for sure how many trees were cut. Nonetheless, it’s more than a few trees. Now the kicker… how long do you think it takes an ebony tree to get to this relatively modest size of 25’ tall? Roughly 100 years! To put that in perspective, the average pine or cedar here in the western U.S. would grow this large in less than 20 years. The point is that cutting even a few ebony trees equates to several generations of people and wildlife doing without these magnificent trees and the wildlife they support.
Alright, so maybe it is more than a few trees, and maybe some old ones, but overall does it really matter? First off, remember that Gibson and the U.S. are not the only folks in the international community wanting the best of the best ebony. Next, consider that the entire “island” (many talk of it as our 8th continent) contains 5% of the world’s biodiversity on only 0.4% of our global landmass. In other words, it is a unique, irreplaceable global hotspot for plants and animals. Amazingly, 95% of the mammals and 83% of the plants are found nowhere else but Madagascar. As the World Bank puts it in their $57.2 million dollar work plan for helping deal with these problems… “The protection of Madagascar’s biodiversity is an international responsibility” (World Bank  Report No. 61964-MG).
So, is it fair? Is it like putting Ben and Jerry in jail for using special, protected cherries in its Cherry Garcia ice cream? Well, the law says you can’t, but fairness depends on our individual views of what’s most important in our own worlds. I do like my ice cream, but I’d give up a little of that bliss if it meant we could hang onto a few more rare cherry trees, or ebony trees, for my kids to see. To make amends, Gibson did agree to pay $50,000 as a community service payment to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to promote “conservation, identification and propagation of protected tree species used in the musical instrument industry and the forests where those species are found.” A small sum when considering the magnitude of the problem in Madagascar, but a small step, and worth a feather in Gibson’s cap.