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The Troublesome Truth About Sitka Spruce

June 1, 2007
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The MusicWood Coalition in AlaskaFig. 1SITKA SPRUCE-THE WOOD USED for the vast majority of acoustic guitar, piano, violin, and other musical-instrument soundboards—is being harvested at such a rate from the Southeast Alaskan forests where it grows that the end of the instrument-quality supply is in sight.

“Spruce is the number-one wood for acoustic stringed instruments because it resonates so beautifully,” says Henry Juskiewicz, Chairman of Gibson Guitars and Baldwin Piano, who, along with Greenpeace and other major musical-instrument manufacturers have initiated the MusicWood Coalition to address the long-term viability of Sitka spruce. The critical value of these ancient Alaskan forests to guitar manufacturers has two main elements. First, Sitka spruce predominantly grows in North American temperate coastal rainforests. Second, acoustic-guitar manufacturers require “old growth” Sitka spruce trees of at least 250 years old, because they are large enough in diameter to provide a section of clearwood—meaning no knots or blemishes—needed to create a beautiful, dreadnought-sized guitar top.

Furthermore, most major U.S. guitar companies acquire Sitka from a single source, Sealaska corporation—the largest private land owner and logger in Southeast Alaska. The Native American company practices clearcutting, where all the trees in a given harvest region are removed at once. Around two years ago, Sealaska’s annual report revealed some factors of immediate concern to guitar manufacturers. “In November 2005, Sealaska announced the results of a comprehensive timber analysis,” says Greenpeace Forest Campaign Coordinator Scott Paul. “We analyzed Sealaska’s own numbers, and estimated they would exhaust their supply of old-growth Sitka spruce in six years. Obviously, they were concerned with the status of their forests, and so were we.”

Greenpeace initiated an extensive audit of the region’s timber market, and discovered that more than 80 percent ships to Asia for home building, with the bulk of the remaining wood used for door and window frames in the United States. Musical instrument manufacturing accounts for a very small fraction of the market.
“It takes only about 120 to 150 logs a year to supply all the guitars that are made in the United States,” says Bob Taylor, President of Taylor Guitars. “I know this because I’m friends with the guy at Pacific Rim Tonewoods—which is the company that buys the logs from Sealaska, and cuts tops for everybody in the North American market. To put a further perspective on that number, a typical sawmill can cut 120 logs into 2x4s in a single shift.”

 

Despite the music industry’s low demand, several factors drove Greenpeace to contact guitar manufacturers about discussing alternate management strategies for harvesting music-grade wood. “Other industries can easily switch to new materials,” says Paul. “Some [home] builders are already switching from wood to light steel. But guitar manufacturers rely specifically on old-growth Sitka spruce. More importantly, guitar manufacturers have a history of trying to do the right thing environmentally, and their high media profile and passionate consumer base is attractive for raising awareness.”

To get help rallying the music industry around the issue, Greenpeace contacted Gibson’s Juskiewicz, who is well-known for being environmentally active. Juskiewicz then invited representatives from Martin, Taylor, and Fender to meet with Paul’s team at the 2006 Winter NAMM show. Greenpeace’s main agenda was getting the manufacturers to approach Sealaska about transitioning its harvesting practices to be in accordance with Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) standards. “We were not aware the Native Alaskans were harvesting and exporting these trees so quickly,” says Chris Martin, Chairman and CEO of C.F. Martin & Co., whose grandfather used Adirondack spruce until the species was over-harvested 50 years ago (at which point, the company switched to the seemingly endless supply of Sitka spruce in Southeast Alaska).

Greenpeace and other organizations established the FSC in the early ’90s to be the global “gold standard” for forest management. According to the Greenpeace-sponsored musicwood.org, the idea behind the FSC is to “bring together representatives from the environmental, social, and business communities to work together on appropriate standards for managing forests.” The FSC (fscus.org) currently identifies ten principles and 57 criteria—such as stating that forest management shall conserve biological diversity, as well as fragile ecosystems—for preserving forest resources. Clearcutting is not an FSC-sanctioned behavior.

After the NAMM meeting, Gibson, Martin, Taylor, and Fender agreed to join forces with Greenpeace and form the MusicWood Coalition. The group’s first goals are championing FSC-certified Sitka spruce, and developing a win-win proposal with Sealaska that would address economic, cultural, and environmental issues for the long-term viability of the forests and the people that depend on them. “The door is open for every manu-facturer to be a part of the MusicWood Coalition,” says Matthew Janopaul, President and COO of Fender Musical Instrument Corporation. “Today it’s Sitka spruce, but the reason for our involvement is the bigger issue of sustainability for all the wood used in the guitar industry.”

Last summer, MusicWood Coalition representatives traveled to Sitka, Alaska, to see the forests first hand. Greenpeace played the role of tour guide, and hosted a meeting with Sealaska. “It put the guitar manufacturer and the supplier in the same room facing each other for the first time,” says Janopaul. “This was critical, because Sealaska is the steward of the Sitka supply. Alaska is really the last frontier for the species.”

How did Sealaska come to control such a vast forest of these valuable trees? “Sealaska was created in 1971 under the terms of the Alaskan Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), which was an aboriginal land settlement to compensate tribes for Federal taking of their homelands throughout Alaska,” says the corporation’s Executive Vice President Rick Harris. “ANCSA was passed only because there was an immediate need to secure a right of way for construction of the Alaskan oil pipeline. The act set aside 44 million acres to be distributed to Alaskan native peoples, and the Southeastern region—with more than 21 percent of Alaska Natives—received only 290,000 acres. The government still owes us a big parcel of approximately 85,000 acres.”
As Sealaska is Alaska’s biggest logger of Sitka spruce, the MusicWood Coalition is urging the corporation to seek FSC certification in order to protect and sustain the forests it owns. While there are presently no FSC standards for Southeast Alaska, Paul maintains that all Sealaska has to do to jumpstart certification is express interest.

However, gaining FSC certification is not as easy as shouting, “We’re interested. Let us in!” Once a company asks to be certified, the FSC sends out third-party auditors to evaluate the firm’s forest areas and logging operations. Specific standards for the environment are established through the audit, and bolstered by the FSC’s principles and criteria. If all conditions are met, the company receives a five-year certification, and then must plan to reapply for certification every five years thereafter. Annual audits also cost additional money. The process is time consuming, and it’s not free. “We estimate the total cost of an FSC audit and certification at under $100,000,” says Juskiewicz, “and the MusicWood Coalition and Greenpeace is offering to pay those initial costs, so the ball is in Sealaska’s court. But, from their point of view, the process will cost lot more than the certification fee, because certification calls for a company to implement forestry practices that could be very expensive.”

“Sealaska has a history of working with conservation groups to protect ecologically important areas of the Southest Alaskan forests,” says Harris, “and our board is absolutely interested in the pursuing the concept of certification. But it’s hesitant to adopt certification on a large-scale basis, because we don’t know what forest management practices we are being asked to sign up for. We want to ensure that everyone understands the cost of certification. Working together, we should be able to find balance.” The MusicWood Coalition reconvened at Winter NAMM 2007 in January—Yamaha, Kawai, and Walden attended the group’s breakfast—and welcomed Sealaska representatives who had traveled to Anaheim, California, to talk with guitar manufacturers and view the instruments made with their Sitka. At a dinner meeting, Sealaska proposed designating a relatively small “MusicWood” forest, and putting it through the FSC certification process.

"The problem is that we’re not sure we can afford it,” admits Harris. “If you can imagine setting aside 6,000 acres, and only removing 150 logs a year, that’s an awful lot of real estate with limited economic return. I have to find additional values. Remember, we’re able to sell reasonably priced wood to manufacturers right now precisely because our harvesting methods are designed to deliver a variety of products to a variety of customers.” Whatever the various business considerations, one thing is dead certain: The ecological credit card is nearly maxed out on Sitka spruce. According to Greenpeace calculations, even when Sealaska acquires the last 85,000-acre land parcel from the government, it will only buy approximately 15 to 20 more years of Sitka if logging continues at current rates. Sealaska has reduced its harvest pace because it realizes it is running out of trees, and, since being awarded the land 35 years ago, it has also invested heavily in new crops of trees that can produce music-quality wood in 125 to 150 years.

Currently, other than seeking to stimulate FSC operations in Canada, the Music- Wood Coalition does not have a solid Plan B for when the supply of old-growth Alaskan Sitka spruce disappears. “We’d like to remain Sealaska customers,” says Taylor. In addition, none of the MusicWood members suggested a more abundant wood as an acceptable substitute for Sitka spruce—not even Martin, who champions alternative woods.  “Guitar makers have done too good a job of convincing end users that the only good woods are rosewood, mahogany, spruce, and ebony,” he says. “There are, however, plenty of other woods and synthetic materials that make pretty darn nice guitars.” In fact, Martin Guitars has manufactured many SmartWood guitars—which are sanctioned as eco-friendly by the Rainforest Alliance under accordance with the FSC. But while the backs and sides of these models are generally made from non-traditional woods such as cherry, the soundboards are usually “rescued” Sitka spruce—meaning music-grade wood rescued from pulp mills where it otherwise would have been indiscriminately reduced to cellulose, and turned into such items as disposable diapers.

“The bottom line is that we don’t yet have a good idea for a Sitka substitute,” Martin admits. Paul believes the ultimate solution is simple: Save the existing Alaskan Sitka forests. “Greenpeace has successfully implemented FSC certification in forest regions all over the world,” he states. “The landowners commonly believe it’s financially impossible—that if you don’t clearcut, the economics don’t work. I’m not saying it’s easy, but companies have made the transition in many other regions, such as parts of Canada and the Amazon. The MusicWood Coalition and Sealaska will need to work together to find new markets for certified wood, and that also includes the hemlock and yellow and red cedar that grows alongside Sitka spruce in Alaska.”

Of course, consumer awareness and support is yet another potential obstacle. Will guitarists fully embrace the ecological and environmental benefits of purchasing FSC-certified guitars—even when those models may cost more?
“I hope we’ll always be able to make some guitars out of traditional materials, but those materials are going to become much more expensive,” says Martin. “Martin guitars have had spruce tops for as long as anybody remembers. I enjoy that I don’t have to reinvent the guitar every day, but if we have to reinvent the materials, then building guitars is certainly going to be more of a challenge.”

“FSC certification should be like the ‘Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,’” adds Taylor. “But you’re not going to get that ‘seal’ unless 70 to 80 percent of the wood in your acoustic guitar is certified, and that’s going to be difficult to achieve without an FSC-certified Sitka forest to supply tops.” “We’ve already begun communications with the FSC, and we should be ready to meet with the MusicWood Coalition again by later Summer 2007,” says Harris. If the MusicWood Coalition succeeds in its goal of ensuring enough sanctioned Sitka for the long run, then the group can move on to protect other woods with threatened life spans—such as mahogany—and ensure long-term availability of what all players truly care about: Beautiful, sonorous guitars at the best-possible prices.

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