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Architecture Week: "High Tension over Big Timber"

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October 23, 2009 -- Late in 2007, storm-driven rains in outhwestern Washington sent floodwater, mud, and tons of logging debris crashing into homes and farmland downstream of the Chehalis River. Numerous landslides destroyed wide swaths of mountain habitat, caused hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage, and downed an estimated 140,000 truckloads of timber — much of it on land owned by the Weyerhaeuser Company, the state's largest private timberland owner.

by Christine MacDonald

Late in 2007, storm-driven rains in southwestern Washington sent floodwater, mud, and tons of logging debris crashing into homes and farmland downstream of the Chehalis River. Numerous landslides destroyed wide swaths of mountain habitat, caused hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage, and downed an estimated 140,000 truckloads of timber — much of it on land owned by the Weyerhaeuser Company, the state's largest private timberland owner.

In the storm's aftermath, the state senate summoned timber industry executives to Seattle and grilled them about their logging practices. And when election season arrived in fall 2008, Doug Sutherland, the state commissioner of public lands, a Republican with campaign finance ties to logging companies, was swept from office. He was replaced by Democrat Peter Goldmark, who railed against Weyerhaeuser for clear-cutting that many believe had exacerbated — if not caused — the disaster.

Now, nearly two years later, the repercussions of the 2007 mudslides threaten to envelop the most widespread "green" forestry certification system in the United States, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), which had issued its stamp of approval to the Weyerhaeuser lands where many of the slides occurred.

In October 2009, the Sierra Club sent SFI a formal complaint — backed by a 128-page technical memo — alleging that Weyerhaeuser broke SFI's rules by engaging in "risky and irresponsible" logging on steep slopes prone to landslides. Based on the allegations in their complaint to SFI, the Sierra Club would like the certification group to suspend or revoke the logging giant's right to sell its lumber with the SFI logo.

SFI is one of a number of programs that claim to certify products as environmentally friendly, or, in the case of timber companies, attest that the forests they operate are well-managed to ensure long-term "health" or "sustainability." SFI was started in the mid-1990s by the American Forest & Paper Association, a timber industry trade group, and spun off from the trade association two years ago.

SFI was created as an industry response to the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the environmental leader in the wood certification business. FSC was formed in 1993 by a combination of environmental groups, grassroots social organizations, and industry representatives to address rampant worldwide deforestation. (See FSC Versus SFI in ArchitectureWeek No. 439.)

In recent years, a growing number of companies have sought out various "green" labels used to woo environmentally concerned customers. But what constitutes sustainable forestry?

In the case of the massive 2007 slides in Washington, Weyerhaeuser has maintained that extreme weather was the principal cause of the landslides, and that the company could not have done anything to prevent the disaster. According to SFI's procedures, Weyerhaeuser has 45 days to respond to the Sierra Club's allegations, though an outcome could be months or years away in this high-stakes case about how the "green" certification organization polices its members.

Battle over "Green" Forestry

The Sierra Club's October 1 complaint is part of a wider struggle brewing between supporters of SFI and those of FSC. The charges target Weyerhaeuser — which holds a seat on SFI's board — but also in the hot seat is SFI, an organization many environmentalists have decried as a front for big timber companies and the American Forest & Paper Association.

"If entire watersheds can be destroyed, certification doesn't mean anything," says Mark Lawler, a member of the Cascade Chapter of the Sierra Club. He says the 2007 disaster in his home state has "crystallized" the issues he and other critics have with the SFI system. Lawler concedes that the Sierra Club's complaint is put forward largely in (indirect) defense of FSC, which the Sierra Club helped establish.

FSC is widely considered the gold standard in forest management certification. While it has experienced rapid growth in recent years, FSC has struggled to convince U.S. forest owners to adopt its more-stringent rules. According to a report from the Yale Program on Forest Policy and Governance, less than 5 percent of the wood products on the U.S. market are FSC-certified. This relative scarcity of supply has limited the group's ability to capitalize on growing consumer demand for eco-friendly products.

SFI has expanded acreage more quickly for its program, which is easier and less costly for timberland owners to adopt, according to experts with the Yale program and others.

The Sierra Club's move is the third public relations strike against SFI in less than a month. In September, another environmental group, ForestEthics, filed an administrative complaint against SFI with Federal Trade Commission, and another with the Internal Revenue Service. The FTC filing accuses SFI of false advertising and deceptive trade practices designed to mask its links to the forest industry and confuse consumers, while the IRS complaint questions SFI's status as a nonprofit charitable organization.

And on October 21, a coalition of logging companies and forest owners, including Weyerhaeuser, shot back with its own complaint to the FTC, accusing both the FSC and the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) with conspiring to prevent SFI and other "green" forest certification programs from competing in the growing green building market.

The Sierra Club's recent complaint to SFI, meanwhile, will test the organization's willingness and ability to enforce its stated certification standards on companies using its label.

"For certifications to mean something to the consumer, there have to be real consequences for companies that don't comply," Lawler says. "I think they are obligated to fully investigate the complaint. If they don't, it really calls into question why they exist."

SFI President and CEO Kathy Abusow says the complaint will receive a thorough review. "We believe every credible certification program must have a credible complaint process," she says.

How Intense a Storm?

Weyerhaeuser officials are confident that by SFI's mid-November response deadline, the company will be able to show that the intensity of the 2007 storm was the most important factor causing the slides. "This was a level of precipitation that had not been experienced in modern or historical times. It was a record-breaker," said Kevin Godbout, Weyerhaeuser's director of external regulatory affairs. He called the December 2007 rains "a 500-year storm event."

But the storm's intensity is a matter of contention. Weyerhaeuser officials have said that rain gages on company property recorded nearly 20 inches (51 centimeters) of rain. But independent experts recorded much lower rainfall data nearby. At the state senate hearings in early 2008, a state climatologist testified that only 4 to 7 inches (10 to 18 centimeters) of rain were recorded at elevations below the Weyerhaeuser lands and that the storm hadn't come close to breaking records, according to reporting by the Seattle Times.

David Montgomery, a professor of geomorphology at the University of Washington, also questioned whether the precipitation alone could explain the extent of the damage wrought by the storm.

"What this issue really puts in the spotlight for me is not the practices of a particular company. It's the idea that you could remove all the trees off of a very steep, slide-prone slope over a 30- to 50-year rotation and expect it to be sustainable in any geological sense. That's a very bad joke," Montgomery says. "We know that it [clear-cutting] should increase the risks" of landslides, he says. "The question is: what's an acceptable risk?"

Montgomery, a 2008 McArthur Fellow, who has read the Sierra Club's report authored by ENTRIX, a scientific consulting firm, but had no part in drafting the complaint, says the amount of rain didn't appear as remarkable as the extent of the landslides it provoked.

"While the total amount of rainfall, and the resulting flooding, were indeed impressive, the rainfall recurrence intervals of 50 years or less reported for this storm by ENTRIX doesn't make this storm appear to have been an unimaginable event," Montgomery says. "Could it be telling us something when the landscape has a 500-year response to an apparently 50-year event?"

The Sierra Club Complaint

A principal argument of the Sierra Club's complaint to SFI is that precipitation alone wasn't the sole cause of the devastation. Rather, the complaint alleges that large-scale clear-cutting and other logging practices on the steep up-mountain terrain had left behind eroded soils and discarded timber and other logging debris that were carried away by the rainfall, increasing the impact of the flooding and landslides. According to ENTRIX, there was "strong evidence" suggesting much of the wood and debris that ended up covering valleys below had been carried away by slides on hundreds of acres of logging land.

While not claiming that Weyerhaeuser broke any laws, the Sierra Club complaint contends the company relied on a loophole in state law that allowed it to go forward with logging plans based on a 1994 company environmental assessment called a watershed analysis, instead of adhering to stricter environmental regulations enacted after the 1994 report was written.

The obsolete watershed analysis turned out to be a poor predictor of potential slides, according to the Sierra Club. Using data from the state Department of Natural Resources, the complaint identifies 1,259 landslides on Weyerhaeuser land — two-thirds of the total number of landslides that the storm is believed to have caused.

Weyerhaeuser's Godbout confirms that the 1994 watershed analysis was "the baseline" used to determine where to log. But he says the document was probably updated between 1999 and 2001, according to company policy, and upgraded again in 2001 to reflect changes in state law.

Acceptable Risks and Practices

Though executives of the timber company maintain that there is little they could have done to prevent the 2007 devastation, they did conduct in-house technical studies after the storm and made changes to logging practices as a result.

Most notably, the company now requires geological reviews for all logging planned in areas with a 70 percent slope or higher. Weyerhaeuser has also started using LIDAR, aerial laser scanning of the landscape that allows staff to "see through the trees" to examine in detail the landforms that can play a role in landslides.

"We've gone out and upgraded our technology to the state of the art that's available in terms of trying to locate the areas of potential instability," Godbout says. He adds that the company has also improved management oversight and built new internal peer review into the process. "We've got multiple eyes looking at the technical audits and triggers," he says.

But Montgomery, the University of Washington geomorphologist, says Weyerhaeuser scientists were already in possession of scientific research that warned of the region's instability nearly a decade before the 2007 storm. One 1998 paper he co-authored with a Weyerhaeuser in-house scientist and a colleague at the University of Washington concluded that two watersheds that later suffered extensive landslides in 2007 — Chehalis and Stillman — were among the most unstable watersheds in the 2,993-square kilometer (1,156-square-mile) region examined. "The Chehalis and Stillman areas showed up as among the more slide-prone," Montgomery says.

Weyerhaeuser officials respond by saying that more than 60 percent of the landslides from the 2007 storm occurred at sites Montgomery's 1998 paper had not singled out as high-risk areas.

Company spokesman Greg French writes in an email: "A major factor contributing to the poor predictive power of the [Montgomery's] model during this event was that the model was developed for storms of much lower intensity than that experienced by the Upper Chehalis and Stillman Creek watersheds during the 2007 storm. The huge amount of rainfall caused sites that normally would be stable to fail."

Green Profits

Green building has emerged as one of the fastest-growing segments of the construction industry. It represented just 2 percent of the housing market in 2005, but is expected to account for as much as a quarter of commercial construction starts and one in five new homes by 2013, according to McGraw Hill Construction's Green Outlook 2009 market intelligence report.

The growth has been so impressive — even in the current recession — that mainstream logging and construction companies have moved aggressively into this arena. To compete with the USGBC's highly-regarded LEED program, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) recently rolled out its own "green" home-building standard, plus a companion logo system for building products.

And the NAHB program, as well as the industry-backed building certification system called Green Globes, have lobbied with some success for the inclusion of their programs in new zoning rules being adopted around the country, as well as in emerging federal, state, and local guidelines that call for green building in the construction of schools and other government buildings.

SFI has been a big part of the timber industry's green market push. The SFI label is accepted by the NAHB and Green Globes systems, and SFI has rapidly certified more than 163 million acres (66 million hectares) of North American forests. In the United States, FSC has certified 100 million acres (40.5 million hectares) of forests.

With a budget of $5.5 million a year — $1.8 million of which went to the advertising firm Porter Novelli in 2007 — SFI has also made some competitive inroads. The label has been embraced by several large corporations that represent significant forest-product purchasing; Wal-Mart and publishers such as Forbes and Time, Inc. are among the companies that have moved to SFI-certified wood in recent years.

But SFI, Green Globes, and other green building initiatives tied closely to big timber and construction industries have come under increasing criticism for greenwashing, and are struggling to achieve credibility among people more closely tuned into the sustainability debate.

Peter Goldman is the Seattle attorney representing the Sierra Club and ForestEthics in the three recent complaints that together mount the most sweeping challenge to SFI to date. He says of SFI, "They are masters at confusing the market."

"We believe in the market," he adds. "We just want a level playing field and believe the market will take care of the rest."

A dogged former prosecutor who quit criminal law a dozen years ago to open the Washington Forest Law Center in Seattle, Goldman has had SFI in his sights for a while. He crafted a 2006 complaint lodged with SFI against Weyerhaeuser for another one of his environmental group clients, the Seattle Audubon Society. That year, he also represented the group in a lawsuit against Weyerhaeuser that led to a settlement protecting Washington state spotted owl habitat after a federal judge ruled that the company's logging violated the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Seattle Audubon's 2006 complaint to SFI against Weyerhaeuser was withdrawn, according to Abusow.

LEED Saga Continues

The assault on SFI's credibility is unfolding as the USGBC gets ready to vote on new benchmarks defining the sustainable sourcing of wood products within the framework of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), the preeminent green building certification system in the United States.

While SFI has Green Globes and NAHB recognition, the LEED system currently recognizes only FSC-certified lumber as sustainably sourced. But as soon as early next year, USGBC officials hope to have new benchmarks in place that will open the door for other forest certification systems. While three or four different programs could potentially benefit, a pitched battle is underway between SFI and FSC supporters.

Timber and construction giants, trade associations such as the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) and NAHB, and some business-friendly environmental groups are backing SFI. Loose coalitions of green building pioneers and more stringent environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and ForestEthics, support FSC.

What the USGBC does is being closely watched and may be pivotal to the future of sustainable forestry. After the first draft of the new benchmarks was issued last year, SFI supporters were ecstatic. Abusow, the SFI president, told ArchitectureWeek in July 2009: "It's fabulous. We are very, very pleased." FSC supporters, however, were furious and stepped up pressure on the USGBC to address what they saw as loopholes and vague language.

The tables were turned last month when the USGBC issued the long-awaited second draft of the wood benchmarks. This time, SFI and the AF&PA were up in arms over the proposed rules. SFI issued a statement on September 30 that said: "The benchmarks miss the point; in fact they miss several points and therefore several opportunities for the growing green building marketplace to recognize wood products from third-party-certified, well-managed forests."

AF&PA has also stepped up its criticism of the USGBC, charging, among other things, that the green building council discriminates against wood certified by SFI and the American Tree Farm System, another certification system.

In its October 21 counter-complaint to the FTC, the coalition including Weyerhaeuser called ForestEthic's September 9 complaint "unsupported and without merit," and made a series of allegations against FSC and USGBC. Among them were concerns about whether FSC adequately audits and polices its members' forestry practices. But the 15-page letter saves its strongest words for the USGBC, asking the FTC to investigate "anti-competitive activities and monopolization arising out the USGBC's LEED system and preference for FSC certified products."

The complaint suggests USGBC is in violation of anti-trust laws by recognizing only FSC lumber. It asks the agency to provide guidance to all standards-setting organizations on compliance with anti-trust laws.

USGBC spokesperson Ashley Katz confirms that the group hopes to finish the drafting process and send the benchmark proposals to the organization's members for a vote within the next few months, and get the new rules in place in early 2010.

This fall's skirmishes between the SFI and FSC camps come too late to influence the drafting process. But bad publicity could play a role in how USGBC members vote on the benchmarks.

Weyerhaeuser, meanwhile, has until mid-November to provide SFI with its response to the Sierra Club complaint. If the Weyerhaeuser response doesn't satisfy the Sierra Club, Abusow says the independent company that originally carried out the SFI certification audit on Weyerhaeuser's land will investigate. She wasn't sure how long that investigation could take. But the Sierra Club has already put SFI on notice that it is ready to seek further reviews if it is not satisfied with the auditor's report.

As humans struggle, and another rainy season creeps up on the Northwest forests, millions of acres of trees stand in splendid silence.

Christine MacDonald is the author of Green, Inc.: An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone Bad, Lyons Press, 2008.   More by Christine MacDonald