The same is true with your musical instruments. Do you know where your beloved acoustic guitar grew up? Do you know where she is from? Well, now you can.
Chances are your old girl’s curvaceous figure is partly a soundboard made of Sitka spruce which means that your beloved probably grew up in Alaska. Sitka spruce is currently the dominant wood used for soundboards for acoustic guitar and pianos and much of the supply comes from Southeast Alaska.
A visit to the Music Wood website will give you a virtual tour of a guitar and tell you the regions where the wood was sourced. The website is part of a really cool partnership with the major guitar manufactures in the United States aimed at producing new guitars that send a message against clear-cut forestry (i.e. A former forest on which all the trees have been cut down. Think about it like all trees from an area of forest fall to the ground in a single cut--yikes! not cool!).
Scott Paul (SP), Greenpeace Forest Campaign Coordinator, took some time out to answer some of my questions about the campaign.
SP: Greenpeace, Gibson, Martin, Taylor and Fender.
SK: How did the Music Wood Campaign begin?
SP: In 2003 Greenpeace turned its attention to the Southeast Alaskan rainforest, the northern most extent of the North American great coastal temperate rainforest – considered too be the rarest forest type on Earth. Once stretching unbroken from northern California to the Alaskan panhandle this region is home to an amazing variety of wildlife but has experienced decades of government subsidized, highly destructive clear-cut logging. Coastal temperate rainforests are a unique global anomaly occurring along the thin stretch of land – the fertile valley bottoms and estuaries – between high coastal mountains and the sea. In Alaska the Pacific Coast Mountains trap moisture rolling in from the ocean, as storms drench the region with as much as 200 inches of rain a year. The ancient trees of this forest live from 200 to 700 years, and one species can survive for 1,000 years or more.
For two years Greenpeace quietly investigated the international market for Alaskan forest products. The organization has become the global leader running international markets campaigns documenting destructive, and often illegal, logging practices in one part of the world and following the product to the international marketplace. The Alaskan research confirmed what Greenpeace largely already knew. Roughly 80% of all trees cut are destined for the Asian market for home construction, temples, shrines with much of the remainder finding its way to the North American market in the form of doors and windows.
However the research also uncovered a comparatively very small market flow, Sitka spruce destined for international renowned musical instrument manufacturers. As it turns out Sitka spruce is currently the dominant wood used for soundboards for acoustic guitar and pianos and much of the supply comes from Southeast Alaska. Prior to World War II Adderondack spruce had been the dominant soundboard wood but a post-war building boom largely whipped that that species out for large-scale music quality production and the market shifted westward to Sitka spruce.
Armed with its new research Greenpeace contacted Henry Juszkiewicz, the CEO of Gibson Guitars, asking if he would arrange a presentation for rival manufacturers at the January 2006 NAMM, the industries biannual tradeshow. Juszkiewicz responded inviting Chris Martin, Bob Taylor and Matthew Janopaul, respectively the CEOs of Martin, Taylor and Fender guitars. Greenpeace presented its finding and chronicled the demise Sitka spruce quickly getting the attention of the manufacturers. Unlike other users of Sitka spruce both tradition and tonal characteristics makes substitution extremely difficult for instrument manufactures. By the close of the meeting a new and unprecedented coalition was formed designed to find win-win solutions for the Alaskan rainforest seeking reform in the logging sector that provided the wood.
SK: How did the collaboration take place?
SP: In 2006 Greenpeace arranged a one-week tour of the Alaskan Rainforest for senior executives from Gibson, Martin, Taylor and Fender. During this tour a meeting was arranged between the MusicWood coalition and the logging company marking the 1st time that the manufacturers meet face to face with the logging company.
In 2006 Greenpeace arranged for representatives of the logging company to tour three FSC certified forest operation in California, Oregon and British Colombia Canada.
SK: How often did the task force meet?
SP: Since the first January 2006 NAMM meeting we have meet every six months at the NAMM (Austin July ’06 and Anaheim January ’07). Greenpeace also travels to the manufacturers periodically and communicates regularly via email and telephone calls.
SK: What other species are next?
SP: The MusicWood coalition is eager to expand beyond Sitka spruce to address other traditionally used species. Greenpeace recognized that we may need to part ways pertaining to specific species, species where logging has decimated populations to the point where we may believe that no logging, certified or otherwise, should take place. However we all agree that the coalition can be a powerful force driving reform in the logging sector. There are many species that we can address.
SK: What industries are the major contributors to the plight of the Sitka spruce tree?
SP: Home construction, temples, shrines, doors and windows.
SK: I have heard that the age of the wood affects the sound of wooden instruments like guitars, violins, and cellos. Has the music community embraced the sound of the new sustainably produced guitars?
SP: As a rule of thumb, acoustic guitars rely on Sitka spruce soundboards that are at least 250 years old to produce the desired sound quality. Keep in mind that Gibson, Taylor, Martin and Fender only need 150 trees a year. That is not a lot on the grand scheme of things but the profile of the coalition is strong enough that we can effect change on the ground.
SK: What advice do you have for musicians searching for new and used guitars? What criteria should they keep in mind when purchasing new instruments?
SP: No one should feel bad about having an old guitar that made of this or that species. There is an expression “highest and best end use” and if an old-growth tree was cut to make a guitar that is a hell of a lot better than if it were cut for plywood or disposable products. A guitar produced from an FSC certified well-managed forest is the same quality as one taken from a clearcut.
SK: What are the next steps for this campaign?
SP: In the beginning we really disciplined ourselves, to keep our eye on the prize, to focus on Sitka spruce and the Alaskan rainforest. It is easy to get distracted by all the shinny objects in the music business. We did not want to think about the endless possibilities of “what is next” until we gave our best shot to addressing the Alaskan rainforest. Now however things are looking promising, by no means a sure thing, but promising. Thus we are now starting to really consider other species and other ways to utilize our partnership.
SK: How can musicians and music fans get involved in this campaign?
SP: In the MusicWood case everyone appears to sincerely want to really address the problem, the manufacturers, the logging company, etc. At this stage pressure is not needed so it is all about public awareness. Check out musicwood.org, link to it, inform yourself and realize that you can exact change through education. There is a societal shift taking place and people are realizing that milk does not come from Safeway and wood does not come from The Home Depot. Look for the FSC logo and buy products that carry it where you can.
SK: What is your favorite song of the moment?
SP: My wedding anniversary is coming up so I have been listening to Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love” off Time Out Of Mind.
SK: Is there a song out there that inspires you to continue protecting the environment?
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