Guitar makers band together to save vital timber

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The Independent US

Between them, they have produced instruments used by some of the world's most famous musicians - Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend and Paul Simon are just a handful of performers who have picked up their guitars and strummed.

Now this group of guitar makers has come together in an effort to preserve the threatened Alaskan forests that provide the timber for a crucial part of their instruments. At the current rates of cutting, they say, the Sitka spruce, in particular the older trees which are vital to the sound and performance of their guitars, could be gone in a decade.

"It's time for us to self-govern and take responsibility to get in there and say these practices have to change," said Bob Taylor, the president of Taylor Guitars, based in California, whose customers include Brian Adams, Neil Young and Suzanne Vega. "In reality, we are a very small user [of Sitka] but we have a really big voice... People show up when we show up."

Taylor, along with Fender, Martin and Gibson, are calling on the suppliers of Sitka spruce, an extraordinarily strong, vibrant timber that is used for the sound boards of acoustic guitars, to apply for certification under the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

The FSC, founded by a coalition of environmental groups in the early Nineties, wants forests to be managed according to the best scientific and environmental standards and that timber is harvested on a sustainable basis. "We are seeking to partner with people closer to the forest that are trying to manage these valuable, precious resources more judiciously," said Chris Martin, the chairman of Martin and Co.

The spruce used comes almost exclusively from the coastal temperate rainforest of south-east Alaska and Canada, where logging during the past 100 years has depleted stocks. According to an analysis of the logging industry in the region by the environmental group Greenpeace, more than 80 per cent of the timber is shipped to Asia, where it is used mainly to build homes. The bulk of the remainder is used in the US for door and window frames.

Campaigners say the majority of the timber from south-east Alaska is supplied by Sealaska, a co-operative of Native Alaskans that has more than 17,000 members and which is the largest private landowner in the region. Greenpeace arranged a meeting between Sealaska and representatives from the four guitar companies during the summer. They are trying to persuade Sealaska to apply for FSC certification.

"I think they are very interested in finding options that can keep them involved and also provide social and economic benefits," said Greenpeace's Scott Paul.

Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) is the world's third-tallest species of tree, after the Coast Redwood and Coast Douglas Fir. The oldest specimens are 700 years old while the tallest reach more than 90 metres. Only remnants of the original forests remain. An insight into the threat faced by the spruce of south-east Alaska can be seen by the history of the Adirondack spruce of the north-east US, previously used for acoustic guitars but all but decimated as a result of over-logging in the 1940s.

Mr Paul said his organisation intended to start campaigning about other threatened timber used by instrument makers. No one from Sealaska was available for comment yesterday.