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Certified Wood Debate Heats Up


By Tristan Korthals Altes

Passed in the u.s. in 1900, the Lacey Act put an end to the sale of illegally hunted animals. Congress has amended the act several times since then, adding more animals to the list, as well as some plants, and in a June 2008 vote it added the protection of timber. Effective as of November 2008, timber harvested illegally outside the U.S. cannot legally be sold here. Wood certification, which safeguards the source of lumber from environmental, social, and legal perspectives, has been a niche environmental issue dominated by debate about its role in the LEED rating systems. But with wood’s inclusion into the Lacey Act, wood certification became, virtually overnight, the law of the land.

Certified Wood Debate Heats Up
Image courtesy Jim Frazier
Illegally sourced wood is banned by Congress, while the debate over LEED certification rages on.
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Several organizations maintain standards for sustainably grown and harvested wood, including the international Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), its U.S. chapter, FSC–US, and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). Controlling the legality of the wood supply is only one aspect of these certifications, but it’s an important one. According to FSC–US, 10 percent of the American wood supply comes from illegally sourced wood imports. The Amazon, the Congo, and Indonesia are hot spots for illegal operations, which routinely devastate entire ecosystems, as well as indigenous lands and ways of life. The recent Lacey Act amendment was supported by U.S. industry groups including the American Forest & Paper Association, which estimates that U.S. companies lose $460 million annually in reduced exports due to illegal competition, in addition to losses stemming from the deflating effect of illegal imports on domestic timber prices.

To assess a violator’s legal liability relative to civil and criminal penalties, a key factor will be the extent to which companies knowingly broke the law. Thus, the logo of a forest certification standard such as FSC has shifted from simply an advertisement of environmental values to a protection against prosecution. Companies using standards like FSC’s to undergo chain-of-custody certification, which monitors the integrity of certified wood through a supply chain, will be ahead of the game in ensuring the legality of their wood supplies.

Even with the legality of wood and forest certification gaining relevance in the U.S., the fight among rival forest-certification programs to define their market goes on. In August 2008, following two years of work, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) issued a proposal to broaden the requirements of the certified wood credit in LEED. Awarding points for use of certified wood has been a signature issue of LEED since its inception, and FSC, a darling of environmentalists, has been the sole certification system recognized in LEED. Critics aligned with SFI itself, a rival certification program with industry roots and a less prescriptive approach, have long charged that USGBC’s recognition of FSC is arbitrary.

USGBC’s proposal endured a month of public comment before being sent back to a LEED committee for revision. Debate has focused on the proposed “Forest Certification System Benchmark.” Certification systems seeking recognition in LEED would be judged against this benchmark, which names numerous criteria, from governance to ecological and social concerns.

SFI, which has the most to gain, has offered its support of the proposal. At the same time, SFI has submitted numerous comments on how the benchmark system should be revised. Apparently jockeying for position, it frequently argues that FSC fails to meet the benchmark. However, SFI may not fare well under the benchmark, which includes bans on genetically modified organisms and certain biocides.

FSC, which appears to meet the requirements of the benchmark, has vigorously criticized it. Following release of the proposal, Corey Brinkema, president of FSC–US, told Environmental Building  News, “many of what are referred to as benchmarks will really only become benchmarks after they’re interpreted” by USGBC rulings on which forest certification systems are in compliance. Depending on those interpretations, the benchmarks “could turn out to be pretty stringent or fairly loose,” says Brinkema.

Other environmental groups sympathetic to FSC, including the Cascadia Region Green Building Council, have stated their support of a system benchmark but noted concern that the proposed system does not match the rigor of FSC.

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This article appeared in the November 2008 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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