© Copyright 2013 Southcoast Furniture, Inc.

Wood Regulation and Usage

Across the globe, protections have been increasing for wild animals and plants.  The primary International framework for these efforts comes from a treaty known as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, generally referred to as CITES.  Its appendices list not just woods (flora), but all forms of wildlife.  There is no legal binding on the signatories, but by signing, they are supposedly agreeing to abide by the permit requirements suggested by CITES.  While more than 90% of the world’s nations are signatories at this point, the number of countries who have actually devoted resources to enforcement of the permit guidelines is much less. The US is not among those who simply give lip service to this treaty, they are probably the most stringent in enforcing the permit recommendations.  In addition, the US also has a national law called the Lacey Act which goes beyond CITES recommendations.  Originally formulated and passed by Teddy Roosevelt to protect endangered animals, it now has been extended to woods as well.  It extends US documentation requirements to species that may not be regulated in International commerce, but have permit requirements for harvest in their country of origin. The CITES appendices divide species into three classes.  The first class is virtually untouchable.  Certified scientific experiment is pretty much the only permitted use for these species.  Among instrument tonewoods, Brazilian Rosewood is the notable member of this class.  Sea animals are regulated as well; some of them are also in Appendix I, and this is a potential nightmare for instruments with shell inlay, as identification is much more difficult with shell species than wood species.  The second and third appendix classifications consist of species that are not as yet endangered, but require varying degrees of protection to maintain viability.  In instruments, a lot of commonly used woods are found here, such as Honduras Mahogany, Spanish Cedar, Cocobolo, and the many of the Ebony species.  As it would apply to us here at Southcoast, there is no real distinction between these classes, because all require permits of some sort, and we are unable to obtain permits for any species whatsoever.  Our problem with the process comes from the limited resources in enforcement.  Much of the wood we would use is available under both local and international law, but when it comes to exporting it to the US, local government does not have the manpower in their export offices to issue the permits for small shipments such as ours.  If we wanted to export full containers of wood, or containers of Ukuleles, it would be another matter.  It’s another instance where small business ends up facing severe regulatory obstacles because the regulations, to be most effective, are aimed at controlling volume producers.  As a result, what we have done is to identify and test wood species that require no permits.  Surprisingly, some of these species are fairly well known, but others you will have likely never have heard of.  Finding enough additional woods to be able to offer a substantial selection, then identifying consistent sources and testing them has taken over two years.  With the incredible biodiversity in the Central American forests, we have ended up with woods, that as a group, we are even happier with than what we had before.  It saddens us to not be able to use woods such as Mahogany, Spanish Cedar and Cocobolo - woods that figuratively grow just outside our doors.  Still, we support the conservation efforts and the regulatory process, even when small enterprises like our own shoulder a larger share of the burden.  Any lover of wood hates to see what has happened to many of these species over the last several decades. What does all this mean, however, to individual instrument owners.  Technically, it means that you should have in hand documentation that any wood product, including your musical instruments, is made from wood that was not harvested in violation of the permit process.  There is a lot of misinformation about how these regulations are applied to individuals.  This naturally arises from two anomalies.  First, there is the fact that at the moment, at least, no one seems to be inclined to keep enough control over their wood inventories to be able to provide accurate permit documentation to their customers.  The law, in fact, does not require that builders should have to do this.  Second, there is the way these laws are enforced.  It is important to distinguish between “this violates the law”, and “this violates the law, but no one will be enforcing it”.  Various officials have made announcements from time to time, saying something to the effect that individuals are not being targeted with enforcement.  These pronouncements usually occur not long after publicized confiscation episodes happening to these same “non-targeted” individuals.  To be clear, however, these laws do apply to individuals, not just business.  These laws do  apply within the borders of the US, not just when engaging in International travel. As a practical matter, they are not being enforced within the borders of the US, and I can’t imagine that happening elsewhere either.  If you were to cross a state line with undocumented wood products, it would technically be a federal violation.  APHIS - the Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, part of the US Department of Agriculture - is charged with enforcement in that area, but they have no plans to start demanding documentation on individual interstate Ukulele transport, nor do I expect they ever will. The possibility of bad things happening does ramp up, however, when International travel comes into play.  You don’t worry when leaving the US, but possibly at your destination, as well as coming back, there are Customs Agents to deal with.  The State Department website (a lot of agencies are involved in all this!) simply advises travelers not to bring any plant products into the US.  This is mainly aimed at the small wood carving souvenirs that many tourists buy, but applies to all plant and animal material.  The advisory is posted in the hopes that people will stop putting Customs officials in the awkward position of having to enforce the law.  By the letter of that law, these agents should seize every wooden article without permit documentation.  After all, even as an individual, you are importing plant material.  That will never happen, of course, so we are left with selective enforcement.  What is likely to cause problems?  Brazilian Rosewood, or unfortunately, anything that looks like it might be Brazilian Rosewood.  Customs agents have some basic training in wood identification, but if they have decided to examine your instrument, and it’s a judgment call, then off to the experts it goes.  These folks are stationed in the Certified Ports of Entry that we commercial folks must use.  There our instruments enter with a Lacey Act Declaration for APHIS that lists the species and weight of every wood part in the instrument right down to bracing, purfling and marquetry.        The designated Ports of Entry are:  San Juan, Puerto Rico - New Orleans, Louisiana -  Houston, Texas - Brownsville, Texas - Barrigada, Guam - Honolulu, Hawaii - San Francisco, California - Seattle, Washington - Jamaica, New York - Linden, New Jersey .  As you can see, most of these are commercial ports, or are nearby.  If your instrument were to be confiscated for inspection in one of these places, you would at least have a local office to perform the analysis.  Otherwise, your instrument would be sent to the closest facility.  You have no recourse for any loss or damage that would occur (and there will likely be at least some), from the inspection process. I don’t think Customs officials are going after documentation on the Class II & III woods on as regular a basis, but remember, with selective enforcement, you never know when that could change.  Confiscations seem to happen sporadically, in bunches, and they are most likely tied to increasing attempts to circumvent the rules on the commercial side.  If the USDA is planning a crackdown on some of those larger violators (think Gibson raids), then it helps to show that enforcement is being applied to everyone, big or small. How can you avoid confiscation if you are unlucky enough to be challenged?  It helps to have purchased the instrument within the US and to have proof of purchase.  Why, you may ask?  A purchase receipt is certainly not the same sort of document as a wood harvest permit.  Nonetheless, remember that instrument confiscations are not the primary concern of customs officials.  If you purchased your instrument in the US, there may well be a presumption that either the finished instrument or the wood it was built from entered the US legally, with proper permits.  It’s not proof positive, of course, but will likely get you through.  On the other hand, without a receipt showing a US purchase, the assumption may be that you purchased it overseas.  As we mentioned earlier, many countries, even if they are signatories to CITES have very lax permit enforcement, so the possibility of illegally harvested wood or shell goes way up in the instance of an instrument purchased abroad. Our own “Passport” for Southcoast Instruments operates on this sort of premise, but takes things quite a bit further.  In addition to the date of fabrication, we list all plant and animal species in our instruments.  None of our woods would have required a permit at the date of fabrication, and customs officials have on hand a list of the species that are regulated, and in the case of newer additions to the group, the year they were added is listed as well.  A species that later falls into the permit process is exempt in your instrument if it was not part of that process at the time of fabrication. We avoid the whole shell issue altogether by using only unbleached cow bone for decorative elements and list it as such.  As cattle are a domestic species, this does not even fall into the category of “wildlife” to begin with.  We feel it is highly unlikely that anyone with this sort of documentation would ever have a problem.  We as a company, are declaring all material to be free from permit requirements.  Sending the instrument out for testing would be a waste of time and money, and if there were doubts about our declaration, any repercussions would fall on us, not the owner.  In other words, you should never have the additional worry of fine or imprisonment. Oh, yes, we didn’t mention that.  Penalties for violations of these laws are up to 1/2 million dollars and jail.  We don’t want to overstate this danger.  Even APHIS states that these are maximum penalties applied to those who knowingly violate the law.  And while it is not stated explicitly, it could also be assumed that max penalties would never be applied to someone carrying a single instrument.   Just the same, they are there, and the amount of the fine and/or jail time is at the discretion of the prosecutor and judge, should they for some reason decide to pursue it. ************************************************************************************* We don’t want this page to simply be about the regulations themselves.  We’d also like to make a point as to why they exist.  While forests have been decimated in many parts of the world, especially the tropics, this is mainly due to commercial development and clearing for cattle ranching and subsistence farming, not with true wood use, such as furniture or musical instruments.  When you begin to look at the disappearance of certain individual species, however, things change.  The dangerous depletion of Mahogany forests and Brazilian Rosewood trees for example, can be tied directly to their value as popular commercial timber.  The sad part, is that while these are certainly wonderful woods, they are not necessarily superior to other species that could serve the same purposes. Wood use by species tends to be ultra conservative.  With musical instrument tonewood, for example, a certain species will become known for a giving a pleasing combination of tone and beauty.  Builders will then find it easier to use this known commodity than go to the expense to test and develop sources for something new.  They may naively worsen the situation by promoting the “magical qualities” of the material they find convenient to use.  The public sees that many of the builders are using a certain material, and lauding its wonderful properties, and then they naturally assume it’s superiority.  As a result, they too, become hesitant about lesser known woods. At this point, we have had a tremendous amount of experience with a wide variety of tonewood.  First, working in Central America you are exposed to the greatest variety of wood species on the planet - you are literally building in the world’s treasure trove of hardwood.  We’ve amplified that experience over the intense testing and exploration of the last two years.  It’s ironic that we, as a small 5-person operation, have had to undertake the expense and time to research & develop the use of woods that larger operations seem to fight tooth and nail to avoid - even to the point of breaking the law. Out of literally hundreds of comparisons we could draw, let’s make a few quick ones with the most famous guitar tonewood, Brazilian Rosewood.  A couple of things to keep in mind, of course, are that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that we become accustomed to certain standards of beauty.  It’s true in Art, in Architecture, in Music  - in every area where beauty is judged, including the human form itself.  These standards always change with time.  For some, however, Brazilian Rosewood is now so ingrained as a standard to judge all else by, that nothing else, by simple definition, can be its equal.  It has had a long run at the summit of popular opinion.  But for those who can get past blind adherence to conventional standards - who can hear and see for themselves, there is a lot to be discovered. In our own Central American back yard, there are several true Rosewoods (Dalbergiae) that would work at least as well in guitars or ukuleles as the Brazilian variety.  Honduran Rosewood does not have the spectacular figure of the Brazilian, and it’s tone is a bit different.  Some actually prefer the cleaner, clearer sound - others categorize it as glassy and cold.  Cocobolo (Dalbergia retusa) has every bit as wonderful a figure and coloration as Brazilian, and a tone every bit as rich.  These two woods are threatened enough to now need permits, however, so we won’t be using them.  Nonetheless, they are not nearly in the dire straits of Brazilian.  There are other Dalbergiae in the neighborhood however, that are not restricted at all.  Mexican Kingwood has a beautiful rich dark figure and tone, and while Nicaraguan and Panamanian Rosewood have simpler, subtle figuring, those who have heard their voice have often actually preferred it to Brazilian.   In addition there are a multitude of woods outside the Dalbergia family with similar properties.  Some have a Rosewood “trade name”, and although some of these “trade-name rosewoods” are actually fine tonewoods, others are not. But rather than go into the whole multitude of  “trade-name” rosewoods, let’s wrap up these comparisons a little quicker by taking at look at few species from a completely separate genus, the Cordia family.  It is such a wide group that undoubtedly many species would not make great tonewood.  However in our area, one Cordia, commonly known as Laurel Negro, produces such a dark, lovely “rosewood-like” tone, that people will overlook the butt-ugly appearance.  It’s readily available, since it’s often planted as a shade tree in the coffee plantations, and so it’s widely used for student instruments.  Many of those who grew up playing these student instruments would not ever consider using anything other than their beloved Laurel Negro, even when later in life they have the option of “finer” wood. And “finer wood” does indeed exist in this family.  Ziricote is a Cordia - it shares the same rich sound of Laurel Negro, but in contrast to the drab appearance of its cousin, the green and gray figure of Ziricote is even more spectacular than Brazilian.  Bocote is also a Cordia, also has an incredible figure, and while a bit unstable, when it can be used, it produces a clearer, reverberant tone, much like the Nicaraguan Rosewood. At this point, we hope you begin to see how wide the world of tonewood truly is.  There are not only a lot more examples we could have given in respect to Rosewood, but the same sort of comparisons can be drawn with any other of the popular tonewoods.  Our hope is that a greater understanding of the diverse availability of outstanding tonewoods will eventually reduce the pressure on the endangered species.  While some builders may have duped the public into believing that there are only a few outstanding varieties of tonewood, they are now caught in their own trap.  The larger enterprises, especially, are so worried with losing market share, that some have proven they are willing to violate the law rather than risk losing sales.  They have probably done the math, and figured that even the risk of the substantial penalties are worth the cost.  It may have to be, that the very public they have misled will need to get them out of their dilemma.  You already see greater acceptance of new species by the instrument buying public.  As this public awareness increases, the big builders will be more willing to use non-threatened species.  After all, they won’t be sacrificing quality or tone, it will just be a bit uncomfortable having to explain why their new materials are actually as good as the woods they once claimed produced sounds that could never be equaled. If the Guitar and Ukulele buying public could ever make violations of wood cutting restrictions a useless and unprofitable venture and could make diversity in woods the new standard of fine luthery, we’d never have to worry about having our instruments seized again.           
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