A wood buyer from Washington State and his lumber mill, J&L Tonewoods, were indicted last week on charges of purchasing illegally harvested big leaf maples from the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in violation of the Lacey Act. The act bans illegal wildlife and timber trafficking, and the seven counts of the indictment are the first alleging violations within the United States. J&L Tonewoods processes and supplies big leaf maple for the custom musical instrument industry. Three people who allegedly cut the trees and delivered and sold them to the mill are charged with damaging and stealing government property.

Big leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) is native to the Western American Pacific Northwest, and is one of the area’s few commercial hardwoods. It grows in many places along the coast, including on federal public lands, and provides critical habitat for native species. Some big leaf maples have a distinctive wood-grain pattern known as figured maple, which is valued for woodworking, particularly for making musical instruments and is known as tone wood. Manufacturers pay hundreds of dollars per block of highly figured maple.

The self-described "Home of Figured Big Leaf Maple," J&L Tonewoods states on their website that they have been involved in the tone wood business for 12 years and that they supply some of the larger guitar manufacturers, specifically the electric guitar industry, with figured big leaf maple from the Pacific Northwest. The indictment alleges that the company not only knowingly purchased figured maple harvested from the Gifford Pinchot National Forest – named after the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service – without permits, but that the mill owner trained and assisted the cutters, and at times cut the trees himself. Furthermore, J&L Tonewoods allegedly resold the maple to buyers and told them the wood was legally harvested and sourced. J&L Tonewoods made about 50 purchases from the tree cutters between October 2011 and March 2012, and sold the illegally sourced maple for more than $800,000, typically reselling the wood at three times the price they paid for it, according to the indictment. Much of the wood was destined for PRS Guitars, most famous for making Carlos Santana’s guitars for decades.

The map above shows the general area of the “Iron Creek Theft Site” as identified in the indictment. As some logging is allowed in National Forests, the tree cover loss shown may not necessarily be the result of the illegal Big Leaf Maple harvest.

While the 1900 Lacey Act was framed to deal with the illegal taking of animals, it was amended in 2008 to include plants and plant products such as timber and paper, becoming the world’s first ban on trade in illegally sourced wood products. Penalties vary based on the violator's level of knowledge about the origin and legality of the product. In this case, the Justice Department stated that personnel at J&L Tonewoods were fully aware that they were dealing in illegally sourced timber, making these violations punishable by up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

The Lacey Act has been enforced on timber products before, but the primary focus has been on importers of illegally sourced wood. This is the first time that Lacey has been used to prosecute illegal loggers within the boundaries of the United States, and the results of this case are likely to be closely watched by conservationists and buyers and suppliers of wood across the country. Stay tuned for case updates on our website.