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08.08.2012
Lumbering On
Debate grows over green standards and forests.
FSC logo on sustainably certified log.
N.C. Turner/WWF-Canon

Lumber certification is one of the most controversial environmental topics today and an upcoming decision by the federal government on green building certification systems could have a big impact on how we maintain the health of the world’s forests.

A recent report by the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) compares green building certification systems. It found that the Green Building Initiative (GBI)’s Green Globes rating system aligns better with federal high-performance building requirements for new construction than does the U.S. Green Building’s Council’s LEED system, the system that the GSA currently requires on most of its new buildings.

The GSA report, however, does not address the debate about which standard is more environmentally sound when it comes to wood sourcing. The reasons are raising eyebrows: the president of the Green Building Initiative is Ward Hubbell, a former vice president at the Louisiana-Pacific Corporation, a building materials company with a notorious reputation among environmentalists for clear-cutting forests. Many in the environmental community allege that GBI, which is used for certifying new buildings by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and companies such as Whole Foods, lobbies on behalf of “green-washing” timber companies.

Two main competing forestry certification standards are at issue. One is the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, which is the only standard allowed in the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system. The other is the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), which is one of four forestry certification systems allowed by GBI’s Green Globes rating system.

 
Termite resistant timber in Brazil clearly displaying identification tags (left). Certified Amazonian rainforest managed by Precious Woods Amazon (right).
Edward Parker/WWF-Canon
 

“The Green Building Initiative openly embraces its marriage with major timber companies, and continues to advance their interests,” said Roger Platt, senior vice president of global policy and law at the U.S. Green Building Council, adding, “It is a green building standard that accommodates to the maximum degree the sale of their products.”

Although LEED only awards one voluntary point for use of FSC-certified lumber, a lot is still at stake in the debate over the different certification systems. “Having the credit in the LEED standard has been one of the single largest drivers of the expansion of FSC in the U.S. on the solid wood side,” said Kerry Cesareo, managing director of Forests at the World Wildlife Fund, which was one of the founders of the FSC standard.

The Sustainable Forestry Initiative, which originally was started by the American Forest & Paper Association and is endorsed by GBI, is an example of “industry green-washing at its very worst,” said Sami Yassa, a senior scientist at the National Resources Defense Council, a membership organization in the competing Forest Stewardship Council.

According to Yassa, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative allows the wholesale clearing and conversion of forests into tree plantations, a major issue in the southeastern United States, where tens of thousands of acres of forests are being cleared every year. “This practice is an example of what could never be certified as sustainable,” Yassi said, “because it takes the natural system and turns it into a plantation operation that more represents a crop system than an ecosystem.”

However, clear-cutting for plantations is a nonissue, according to the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. “All forest certification standards including FSC allow for plantations,” said Sustainable Forestry Initiative president Kathy Abusow. “Trees are not being chopped down for plantations,” she said adding that “the reason trees are getting chopped down and threatening our forest is land conversion for strip malls and other types of things.”

In response to questions about his past connections to the timber industry, GBI president Ward Hubbell said, “I don’t accept this idea that if you have ever worked for a company before that you automatically cannot be an objective, responsible part in an organization like this.”

Alex Ulam