SITKA - Bob Taylor, president and founder of Taylor Guitars, admits his company doesn't need 250-year-old Sitka spruce to make perfectly fine sounding guitars. But for now, he said, it would be "a marketing sin" to promote a high-end instrument made of wood with a lesser aesthetic value.
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"People buy guitars for a lot more reasons than sound," Taylor said. "All instruments have aesthetic value. If we could continue that, that would be great. Otherwise in the future we could make guitars that are not as good looking."
As guest of the environmental organizations Greenpeace and the Alaska Rainforest Campaign, Taylor was in Southeast Alaska recently with representatives of other guitar manufacturers, the Gibson, Fender and Martin companies. Greenpeace arranged the visit as part of a project to promote "sustainable" logging practices in Southeast Alaska.
All four guitar makers purchase Sitka spruce harvested by Southeast regional Native corporation Sealaska for use in the sound boards of their instruments. Taylor said they use only wood from trees more than 250 years old, which has the tight grain that imparts superior aesthetic and tonal qualities to the instruments.
Since these trees take centuries to develop their desired qualities, the guitar makers support harvest practices that guarantee that old trees will be available for years to come, he said.
Greenpeace Forest Campaign Director Scott Paul described the guitar manufacturers' visit to Alaska as an "educational tour."
Taylor said he saw the visit as a chance to make relationships with Sealaska and Greenpeace. He said he spoke to Sealaska officials Sunday about changing harvest practices to preserve old trees, but he recognizes Sealaska also needs to find a way to have a profitable timber operation.
"While Sealaska is concerned about preservation, they're mostly concerned with income, and I can understand that," he said. "We're asking them to make a change for our benefit ... and there definitely is a difference of opinion."
Reached for comment in Santa Fe, N.M., Sealaska Executive Vice President Richard Harris said Sealaska has been working with Greenpeace for the last few years to implement some of the policies need to be certified as practicing "sustainable" harvests.
He said he was interested to hear the concerns of the guitar manufacturers, but noted that achieving full certification with a sustainability program could be extremely costly for Sealaska.
"We always welcome any kind of meetings with our costumers, and we had a very good discussion with them Sunday," (Aug. 13) Harris said. He said he expects Sealaska will be working with the guitar manufacturers more in the future.
Fender corporate development manager Rob Stangelini said the guitar manufacturers are often in competition for the same customers, but they realize they need to work together on the issue of sustainable timber harvests.
"We're up here to open dialogue and see if energy can move the ball forward," he said.
Paul said his hope is that by bringing timber purchasers together a way can be found that allows Sealaska and other timber harvesters to make a profit, but still preserve old-growth forests.
Greenpeace and the Alaska Rainforest Campaign are organizing similar visits later this summer by representatives of Japanese companies that purchase Alaskan timber. The groups hosted a contingent of Japanese environmentalists last summer.
Over the last three years, Greenpeace has made Southeast Alaska a focal point of a campaign to get timber around the world certified as being harvested by sustainable management standards set by the international Forest Stewardship Council.
The campaign focuses entirely on private land, as Greenpeace doesn't believe any logging should be done on the Tongass National Forest. Sealaska is the largest private landowner in Southeast.
Greenpeace estimates that over 73 million hectares of forest worldwide have been certified as sustainable by the FSC, none of which is in Alaska. (A hectare is a metric unit of land measure equal to 2.47 acres.)
The methods of sustainable harvesting vary with each situation, but have a common goal of maintaining animal habitat and an area's "biological integrity." Greenpeace believes that clear-cutting is not a sustainable form of harvest.
Although the guitar manufacturers purchase only a tiny fraction of the timber harvested in Southeast, Gibson president Dave Berryman said they could be powerful partners for Greenpeace because of the visibility of their products, which for many years have been the instruments of choice of many of the most famous musicians in the world.
"We can educate people worldwide," Berryman said.
Taylor added that everyday musicians have a serious interest in the wood that goes into their guitars, and they are curious to know how the wood is harvested.
"Oddly enough, the consumer of guitars is concerned with where it comes from, because we talk about where wood comes from," he said. "... When somebody is building a house no one talks about where the wood comes from."
Paul said Greenpeace learned about guitar makers purchasing of Southeast timber through a vast analysis conducted over the last few years of the region's timber market.
The study revealed that over 80 percent of Southeast timber is shipped to Asia, largely for home building in Japan, while the bulk of what stays in the United States is used for window frames.
Taylor estimated that acoustic guitar manufacturers purchase only about 120 logs a year from Southeast, which he said is a small enough volume not to have an impact on the future sustainability of the forest. He said the guitar manufacturers' main concern is that other purchasers will use all of the remaining old trees on the private lands in Alaska.
Taylor said Sealaska has said it can harvest trees on its Southeast properties on a 70-year cycle in perpetuity, which is perfect for meeting the needs of the construction industry. However, Taylor said, a 70-year cycle won't meet the needs of guitar makers, who need older trees.
Nick Colesanti, who works in purchasing for Martin, said his company knows from past experience about the need for a sustainable harvest. For decades, he said, Martin relied on Adirondack spruce from the northeastern United States. But the 173-year-old company had to shift to Sitka spruce after the old-growth Adirondack resource was depleted.
"We can't use all trees," Colesanti said. "We look for trees of a certain size and age, so it's important to us to conserve resources."
Taylor and Berryman said their companies also have been aware of resource conservation for years.
The Taylor company takes part in a sustainable forest project in Guatemala, and Gibson has implemented a program in South America to purchase mahogany certified as coming from a sustainable harvest. Berryman said that after a slow start Gibson's program in South America has taken off, and all of the mahogany the company buys now complies with sustainability standards.
"Now we have to look at all the other woods we use, and spruce is a major one," Berryman said.
Berryman noted that Americans are generally more informed about conservation of tropical rainforests in South America than conservation of the temperate rainforest of Southeast Alaska, but both are valuable.
"It's right here. It's a resource we have in our own country," he said. "Every buyer of a musical instrument should be aware."
Colesanti said Martin sees sustainable forestry as the best option, but the company is researching alternative materials and methods of crafting its guitars in the event that the spruce resource is depleted.
"We don't think we can come up here and say stop," he said. "We heard compelling arguments from Sealaska, and we need to get a lot of people involved to make it economically viable."
Taylor hopes to maintain a dialogue with Sealaska but said Greenpeace is going to have to take a lead role in the project.
"Greenpeace has been kind of the organizer," he said. "Without Greenpeace we could easily go back to our lives and (forget about it)."
For its part, Greenpeace is hoping to build on what it has started with the guitar manufacturers.
Paul said a lot more Sitka spruce actually goes into pianos than guitars, and Greenpeace is working to get piano manufacturers as interested in conservation as their counterparts in the guitar industry.