Cooper bites back at criticism over proposed guitar legislation 

Can't Get No RELIEF

Can't Get No RELIEF

A consortium of environmental, labor and wood products industry experts are attacking a bill sponsored by U.S. Reps. Jim Cooper, Marsha Blackburn and Mary Bono Mack that they allege would fail to regulate foreign pulp-and-paper industries while fomenting greater regulatory burden for importers of endangered plant species — effectively giving a free pass to traffickers of endangered wood.

The experts — among them members of the National Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Investigation Agency and United Steelworkers, which includes employees of the wood industry — took to task H.R. 3210, aka The Retailers and Entertainers Legacy Implementation and Enforcement Fairness (RELIEF) Act, in a recent conference call with journalists.

"What Representatives Cooper, Blackburn and Bono Mack have done is a sweeping change," said Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the NRDC. "You're taking a very powerful tool and essentially undermining very core provisions of it, including enforcement tools, seizure tools and what kinds of products have to be covered."

Responding to the criticism, Cooper dismissed those claims. He called the bill a win-win for environmental concerns as well as guitar owners — addressing the concerns that turned Gibson Guitars' ongoing battle with the federal government into a conservative cause celebre.

Schmidt and others told reporters that the RELIEF Act would effectively draw and quarter the Lacey Act, a century-old U.S. conservation law, in an effort to shield owners and importers of musical instruments manufactured with illegally sourced wood.

In October, Cooper and Blackburn unveiled the RELIEF Act in a press conference held in the heart of Nashville's Music Row — executives of which donated $10,000 and $8,000 to Blackburn and Cooper, respectively, in 2011 — as a means to ostensibly protect the owners of potentially illegal instruments from federal seizure. (To date, no vintage guitars have been seized by the federal government, and Cooper's office was not aware of any cases in which this has occurred.)

Additionally, Cooper & Co. claimed that the bill would streamline the regulatory framework required by a 2008 amendment to the Lacey Act, which was tacked onto a reauthorization of the Farm Bill and passed with bipartisan congressional support — including a vote from Blackburn herself. Cooper didn't vote for the bill.

It was a line environmentalists weren't buying.

"This law that is an attempt to 'fix' the Lacey Act would actually make it a lot more complicated," says Andrea Johnson of the Environmental Investigation Agency. "It's going to create a lot more uncertainty, it's potentially going to create additional regulatory burden. It's certainly going to create more unfunded work for the agencies charged with implementing the law. The harder they are to enforce, the less effective they are."

The group took specific aim at three components of the bill. First, they singled out the paltry $250 fine for "unknowing" offenders, which they claim would allow companies that traffic in endangered woods to evade meaningful punishment. Second, they attacked an exemption for non-solid wood products that they allege creates more regulatory burden for the federal agencies charged with defining what exactly "non-solid" means. Last, they argued that this newfound lack of oversight will provide a boon to foreign pulp and paper industries — which have surged primarily in China due to heavy government subsidization and an American industrial base atrophied by global trade pacts, according to a March 31 report published in the Portland Tribune.

"The Cooper-Blackburn bill excludes the pulp and paper industry from being regulated overseas on where they get their wood-sourcing," Roy Houseman, a spokesman for United Steelworkers, said. "It's important that we don't want to say that paper products, once they enter the U.S., we don't want to give them a free pass in letting them cut down forests on a massive scale."

The group alleges that the legislation, if passed, would severely undercut domestic U.S. wood-based industries that can't compete with an international market teeming with cheaper illegal wood stocks.

"The Chinese price is probably 25 percent lower than the U.S. price," Don Finkell, president of Anderson Floors, told reporters. "Illegal logging is part of this ... and it's just hard to compete with people who don't pay a far price."

Were it not for the Aug. 24 raid on Gibson Guitar Corp.'s Tennessee facilities — and the conservative backlash the raid generated over the seizure of pallets of unfinished exotic wood that Gibson allegedly imported illegally from India — the public at large would likely have little idea about the Lacey Act, much less why they should be mad about it.

George Gruhn, owner of Nashville-based Gruhn Guitars, supports the basic intent of the Lacey Act but thinks that it's far from perfect.

"It's easier for me to get a passport and a visa to go to Pakistan than it is to ship a 1965 Martin in or out of the country, even if it's only going so far as Canada," Gruhn says. "The problems with [Lacey] are essentially that it's impossible to conform with it if you're dealing vintage or antique pieces, or even just plain used ones, and very difficult in cases of new [instruments]."

Gruhn expressed frustration at the confusing labyrinth of red tape imposed by Lacey's provisions, stating that oftentimes he can't get clear direction from federal officials on what he's supposed to do to comply with the law.

The EIA maintains that most of the paperwork requirements have nothing to do with Lacey, but are in fact issues related to Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species laws, which have been around for decades. Anne Middleton, outreach coordinator for the EIA, says that international laws regulating the trade of Brazilian rosewood, a popular material found in vintage guitars, were established in 1992.

Before the 2008 amendments to Lacey, Middleton says, people were just "flying under the radar."

In response, Stephen George, Cooper's press secretary and a former Scene contributor, rejected the claims made by RELIEF's critics. He says that H.R. 3210 isn't the sweeping, environmentally reckless bill that activists have made it out to be, and is quick to point out that Cooper is in good standing with local environmental groups.

Furthermore, George says the EIA and others have been inconsistent with their stances, supporting non-solid exemption and other provisions of the RELIEF Act that they now rail against. As evidence, he points to a series of consensus statements drafted over the past three years by the EIA and other environmental groups for the purpose of refining the implementation the Lacey Act's 2008 amendments. In essence, he says, they've created their own problems.

The RELIEF Act does enjoy support from the National Audubon Society. But America's most beloved birdwatchers are alone in that distinction. The bill's opponents, on the other hand, read like a who's-who list of green lobbying titans, including Greenpeace, Blue Green Alliance, Friends of the Earth, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the World Wildlife Fund, even the Union of Concerned Scientists, among 16 others.

"It's a little more nuanced than that," Middleton says. "Basically, what those consensus statements say is 'Let's all talk about it, let's not rush things. We understand that it can be difficult, but let's understand why it's difficult ... and go from there.' Without disrespecting [Cooper's] office at all, I think they do have good intentions, but they've said they're basing this bill on what consensus groups want, but that's not true at all. They didn't bother to consult with us."

Currently, the RELIEF Act is gestating in a House committee, but it is speculated that the more liberal Senate, buttressed by environmental lobbyists, will not take kindly to the act's perceived flaws with regards to conservation.

Regardless of his bill's chances, Cooper dismisses the criticism. "We can protect the environment and guitars," he says. "This is a surgical fix."

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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