Does the U.S. Forest Service Have a Dog in the Forest Certification Fight?

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Last week, Forest Service Chief Tidwell issued a press release lauding the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) “new opportunities to advance environmentally responsible forest management and help reduce the use of illegally-sourced wood through their Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating system.” Let’s spend a moment unpacking the Chief’s press release.

First, for those unfamiliar with it, the USGBC is a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation known popularly for its creation of LEED, a system for ranking buildings on the basis of their “green” energy efficiency. From its IRS filings, one learns that USGBC’s CEO/Founder earns $1.37 million a year (NGO envy alert!). Most of USGBC’s approximately $50 million income derives from “management fees” and “membership dues.” For example, a manufacturer of windows can pay USGBC to certify that its windows meet LEED standards and market those windows at a premium. Some federal and many state and local regulatory agencies require and/or reward LEED-certified buildings through regulation and taxpayer-financed subsidies. USGBC is the lobbying arm of the industries that encourage and profit from these governmental actions.

There’s more here than just the head of a minor U.S. land management agency promoting a private corporation’s business and lobbying agenda. What are we to make of the “illegally-sourced” wood hook? Wood cut illegally is a big deal in Third World countries where petty corruption makes timber theft easy from government-owned forests. In the U.S., however, the Forest Service institutionalized illegal logging from national forests, e.g., more than a half-century of clearcutting in violation of the 1897 Organic Act, making criminal logging a relatively minor concern. But, I digress.

To understand the full import of the reference to “illegally-sourced” wood, one needs to examine closely the new LEED standard the Chief’s press release promotes. And to understand the LEED standard, in turn, one must read the fine print of ASTM D7216-10, on which the LEED standard relies. The key sentence in this ASTM is: “Products certified to the globally recognized forest certification standards will meet the “Certified Sources” category regardless of their origin.” In other words, if a 2×4 is certified under any “globally recognized” certification system, it is deemed legally sourced and, thus, can be credited as LEED certified, too.

So who wins with this change? Check the contemporaneous and competing press releases. Ta da! The timber industry’s Sustainable Forestry Initiative (a “globally recognized forest certification standard”) is delighted that SFI-certified wood is now LEED certified, too!

Who loses with this change? Aww . . . feel sorry for the Forest Stewardship Council, which has had its monopoly on wood products LEED certification dashed by LEED’s behind-the-scenes collusion with SFI. FSC has “serious concerns” and is calling on its members to pressure USGBC to end this illicit love affair with SFI.

One wonders whether Chief Tidwell knew that his press release pisses on FSC while kissing SFI? Or did the Forest Service’s press office simply xerox USGBC’s media release because it was a slow news day in the Chief office? And how much in licensing fees and membership dues are SFI and its timber industry affiliates paying USGBC for this backdoor LEED certification? You gotta figure it’s more than FSC has been paying.

14 Comments

  1. Andy, here’s the full text of Tidwell’s press release. Note the focus on increasing the use of domestic wood — say, from National Forests that need thinning. You suggest Tidwell was “pissing” on FSC. Others would counter that FSC has had a too-cozy relationship with USGBC, and this pilot “new pathway” is long overdue.

    ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
    WASHINGTON , APRIL 6, 2016 AT 9:30 AM EDT – U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell today issued the following statement on news that the U.S. Green Building Council will create new opportunities to advance environmentally responsible forest management and help reduce the use of illegally-sourced wood through their Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating system.

    “The U.S. Green Building Council’s announcement today creates new pathways for responsibly managed wood products to receive recognition for their contributions to sustainability in the built environment, the restoration of the nation’s forests, and the creation of new employment opportunities in rural America. Nationwide, forests provide more than 900,000 jobs, creating almost $240 billion in economic output every year. Today, our forest resources and the communities that surround them are at risk due to severe wildfires, outbreaks of insects and disease, drought and invasive species, all exacerbated by a changing climate. USDA remains committed to increasing the pace and scale of restoration of the Nation’s forests in order to sustain their health, resiliency and productivity amid these trends. USDA also recognizes the challenges of curtailing illegal logging activities globally and works with a variety of partners to improve enforcement and monitoring of illegal logging.”

    “A healthy forest products industry is integral to the resiliency of our forests and of our communities and that is why USDA has worked with stakeholders to forge new initiatives that increase sustainable uses of wood and accelerate the research, development and commercialization of innovative forest products. In 2011, Secretary Vilsack and I issued a directive to all Forest Service units, calling for increased use of locally milled timber in all new agency buildings and facilities.”

    “More recently, through the White House Rural Council, we convened the symposium Building with Wood: Jobs and the Environment, and recognized the winners of the 2015 U.S. Tall Wood Building Prize Competition(link is external) designed to encourage innovation.

    “Research has demonstrated that wood products from responsibly managed forests outperform other building materials in measures of greenhouse gas intensity, air and water pollution and other environmental impacts. Responsibly-sourced forest products also provide income for private landowners that keeps land forested and supports needed investments in forest management to provide clean water, wildlife habitat, and other values American’s depend upon.”

    For more information on U.S. Forest Service work to conserve the nation’s forests and support rural economies visit http://www.fs.fed.us/.

    • Tidwell’s statement promotes “locally milled timber,” which I assume is more narrow than “domestic wood.” Regardless, neither SFI nor FSC has anything to do with the geographic proximity of a tree to its consumer. If anything, all certification schemes discriminate against small woodlot owners by adding disproportionately to the cost of production, i.e., you gotta pay to play the certification game.

      Regardless of whether this change is “long overdue” or not, why does the Chief think the U.S. Forest Service has a dog in the certification fight?

  2. About five or six years ago I wrote a feature article on LEED for the Stanford Social Innovation Review. One of the big issues at the time was whether LEED would stick to its principles and only accept FSC wood, or bow to industry pressure and recognize the much weaker (and arguably greenwashed) SFI standards.

    I know there’s a lot of disagreement over whether SFI really deserves to be characterized this way, and I’m certainly not the best judge of it, but I will say that the prevailing sentiment among people I spoke to at the time — not activists, but serious green building wonks — was that SFI was a far weaker standard, and represented a weakening of the very idea of sustainability.

    • For a look at both FSC and SFI, see these Dovetail Partners’ reports, Differences between the FSC and SFI Certification Standards from 2011 and Forest Certification Update: Changes to the SFI and FSC Standards in 2015.

      Summary of the latter, poublished in 2015:

      Third-party forest certification began more than twenty years ago, and there have been a number of revisions to the standards used to conduct forest management audits in North America. In 2015, changes are once again being made in the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) programs.

      In January 2015, SFI released the revised SFI 2015-2019 Standards and Rules for its program. The major changes include a restructuring of the program into three core standards (Forest Management; Fiber Sourcing; and Chain of Custody) and the development of a range of specific modifications to address land use conversion, pesticide use, water quality, biodiversity, indigenous peoples’ rights, and biotechnology. The FSC is introducing International Generic Indicators (IGIs) in 2015 to increase the consistency of its global program. The FSC is also undertaking a review of its chain of custody program with proposed changes to include the re-classification of pre-consumer reclaimed paper and a reduction in the threshold for use of the FSC Recycled label.

      In general, the changes may be viewed as positive and representative of a continuing evolution in the understanding of responsible forestry and growth of the respective organizations. In many ways, it appears clear that forest certification programs are facing a breakpoint in their development6 – from “forming” to “norming.” The clarification of procedures and practices (e.g., principles, criteria, and indicators) that facilitate improved consistency and thus operational efficiency are a reflection of this stage of development. However, the rate of change in the standards (e.g., every five years or less) can cause marketplace frustration and confusion while also risking auditing inconsistencies. Recognition that, for a certification system to successfully guide improvement while also creating value, standards must be consistent and stable is key to future success.

        • Jim, I reckon that any National Forest probably could be certified, if it wanted to. The Pinchot Institute has the results of the 5 forests that went through a test certification review. In short:

          “The case studies evaluated five national forests, through simulated audits using standards of the Forest Stewardship Council and Sustainable Forestry Initiative. Released in 2007, the study indicated that the selected national forests measured up well against these widely-accepted standards of sustainability. However, according to auditors’ reports all of the case study forests, to differing degrees, would need to better implement what they are required to do (and what is already in their plans). Many of these issues would require adjusting priorities and better deploying resources or finding new strategies. In only a couple of instances would existing certification standards induce reconsideration of current policies. The two-year study, which was requested by the Forest Service, is the latest in a ten-year series of Pinchot Institute studies to evaluate the applicability of forest certification programs on public forestlands. Through 2008 the Institute shared the results in listening sessions around the country, which were sponsored by the Forest Service to help them further explore how certification could help them steward national forests.”

          http://www.pinchot.org/gp/National_Forest_Certification

          FWIW, I participated in a listening session for the Mt. Hood National Forest.

  3. As noted in the Dovetail Report, its author “is a member of the SFI External Review Panel and participated in the standards revision process.” The report does not state who paid for the Dovetail study, but count me as unsurprised if SFI footed the bill (OTOH, I’d be surprised if FSC did so!).

    For those without a scorecard, FSC is a Greenpeace-created, environmentalist-funded NGO that tries to use market pressure to change forest landowner behavior. In response to FSC, the timber industry created SFI to greenwash its forestry operations. SFI is a $6 million outfit whose CEO makes about $430,000 annually. FSC is a $2 million non-profit (operating in the red recently) whose CEO makes about $240,000 a year.

    In the dying days of the Bush Administration, the Forest Service flirted with the idea of certifying national forests under FSC and/or SFI. Nothing much came of that effort, but I wouldn’t declare it dead yet. National forest certification is not an end in itself; it is just a means to persuade Congress to rollback environmental laws: “Look, ma, we’ve got Good Housekeeping certification! Your burdensome environmental rules are no longer needed!”

    • Andy, there are 8 co-authors on the 2015 Dovetail report. You left out a fair bit of info on the lead author, Kathryn Fernholz, who “is a current Board Member of the Forest Stewards Guild and a member of the Board of Trustees for the American Forest Foundation. Kathryn is also a member of the SFI External Review Panel; serves as a Technical Expert for the FSC-US Working Group….”

  4. FWIW I support FSC certification of NFs (not SFI, an industry scheme) because it would give manufacturers and consumers of NF timber third-party assurance of credibility, integrity. I disagree with Andy that the motive is to allow Congress to rollback protections (which should remain in place, regardless). Seen another way, would it not be pitiful that lands managed by the FS, a supposed exemplar of sound resource conservation, fail to pass FSC review and scrutiny.

    • I agree with Bob. Instead of labeling national forest timber as “FSC” or “SFI” certified, why not label it “this wood certified by the U.S. Forest Service as having been grown and logged sustainably from the public’s national forests.” Consumers would benefit from knowing that the U.S. Forest Service had put its credibility and integrity on the line to ensure the wood’s production was consistent with environmental protection laws that exceed anything FSC or SFI brings to the table.

      In sum, federal land performance standards are established by Congress, not by private corporations (FSC or SFI) unaccountable to the general public.

    • I agree. It would also provide that added value to lumber from NF lands, as opposed to private forestlands. I always thought “free-range” cattle from NF allotments could also sell for a premium, but our permittees just seem to sell them to the feedlots with the rest of them.

  5. I don’t think there is any public lands that couldn’t pass certification. But who is going to pay for it?
    Is the taxpayer going to pay FSC millions of dollars for certification of their lands?
    It really all about money, and trying to make the public feel better about purchasing wood. A FSC clearcut doesn’t look much different than anybody’s else’s. I see it as just another tax on the producer and taking money out of the local economy and sending it to their corporate headquarters in New York.
    I think the Forest Service and BLM should just make up there own certification. If you have ever bought a federal timber sale or looked at a NEPA document you realize the federal land managers go way beyond any requirements of any of the certification agencies.

  6. We had quite an extensive discussion on this back in 2013: if you are interested you can look under category “certification” in the widget on the right hand side of this blog. Here’s one of my posts..

    http://forestpolicypub.com/2013/04/24/a-modest-proposal-certification-for-national-forests-ii/

    Bob- as Andy and Steve said, the FS explored certification with the Pinchot Institute (and for a while earlier under different administrations) but they also explored developing their own certification system, as you suggested.

    During the period when the FS was considering developing this approach (EMS with or without certification), many auditors who conducted certification on private forest lands worked with the Forest Service and many interesting things were found out about the way the Forest Service went about doing its business. Each of us involved probably has our own view on that. Perhaps the most interesting was how little people were used to being transparent with knowledgeable outsiders about the way they do things. Perhaps this cultural developed in response to litigation, or perhaps because bureaucracy is inherently uninteresting and not worth describing..

    Anyway, many FS folks agreed that the public shouldn’t have to pay FSC (or SFI but that wasn’t on the table) for making decisions about how to manage public land. And there are a variety of approaches for organizing third-party audits. For historians, I unfortunately just recycled some material the FS developed in conjunction with Dr. Fred Cubbage on those topics.

    Bob, as Andy and Steve said, the FS explored certification with the Pinchot Institute (and for a while earlier under different administrations) but they also explored developing their own certification system as you suggested.

    During the period when the FS was considering developing this approach (EMS with or without certification), many auditors who conducted certification on private forest lands worked with the Forest Service and many interesting things were found out about the way the Forest Service went about doing its business. Each of us involved probably has our own view on that. Perhaps the most interesting was how little people were used to being transparent with knowledgeable outsiders about the way they do things. Perhaps this cultural developed in response to litigation, or perhaps because bureaucracy is inherently uninteresting and not worth describing..

    Anyway, many FS folks agreed that the public shouldn’t have to pay FSC (or SFI but that wasn’t on the table) for making decisions about how to manage public land. And there are a variety of approaches for organizing third-party audits. For historians, I unfortunately just recycled some material the FS developed in conjunction with Dr. Fred Cubbage on those topics.

    Finally, the Canadians have a national standard, which makes some sense to me. LEED has also accepted CSA.
    http://www.csasfmforests.ca/april2016news.htm

    “CSA Z809 is Canada’s national forest certification standard and the world’s largest national forest management standard with roughly 41 million hectares of woodlands certified. It includes a suite of mandatory core indicators for consistently measuring sustainable forest management across the country. It also requires local adaptations through ongoing public and Aboriginal dialogue with community advisory groups. This reflects the diversity of Canada’s forests, and the fact that over 94% of them are publicly owned. “

    It doesn’t seem as if litigation is as much a generator of what are sustainable forest management practices in Canada as in the US (this is not an original idea). I wonder how many people think US forests could be just as well or better managed with an approach more like our northern neighbors?

  7. It is rare I can go into a lumber retailer and see lumber marked by any of the forest certifiers. If I ask a sales clerk, they don’t have any idea what I’m talking about.

    However, they MUST sell certified wood. Why? The cynic in me says that, to do otherwise, is to invite protests by some organization and the store simply cannot accept that bad publicity.

    Oregon’s Forest Practices Act does a pretty good job on all the major factors of certification. Therefore, when a log buyer asks for certification on the landowner’s part, it always seemed to me it was mostly to satisfy the retailer who cannot accept the risk of bad publicity.

    LEED certification always seemed like a pretty good gimmick. A few years ago, I attended the national SAF conference in Pittsburgh. The convention center was LEED certified and the city was very proud of the center. However, I saw an awful lot of steel, glass, and concrete and saw those things as having left some very large holes in the ground; holes that would be holes for a very long time and, quite possibly, toxic to boot and providers of little habitat. Wood was rather scarce.

    I’ve been involved with the American Tree Farm System’s certification for quite a number of years and feel it does a pretty good job of requiring the landowner to consider a very broad array of things when they write a land management plan. They not only have to know if there are, for example, any endangered species, they also have to show how they know they do/do not have endangered species. They have to think about archaeological sites and a whole host of other factors. This is on top of knowing about their streams, roads, boundary lines, timber types, etc. and how they are going to manage those things. I’ve often marveled at amount of information and detail they have in their management plans.

    Nonetheless, I suspect the small, tree farmer who has his lands certified under the American Tree Farm system has far less information about his lands than does the national forests. More importantly, I’m also very confident the tree farmer knows and understands his lands far better than the managers of the national forests.

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