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The New York Times: "For Sustainable Wood, a New and Unloved Standard"

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October 22, 2010 -- Next week, the USGBC begins casting ballots on whether or not to adopt new standards that would open up LEED certification to any timber certification system that meets a series of sustainability benchmarks.

http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/22/for-sustainable-wood-a-new-and-unloved-standard/?src=me 

Green, a New York Times blog about energy and the environment

By John Collins Rudolf

Next week select members of the United States Green Building Council will begin casting ballots on whether to overhaul how the organization awards sustainability credits for wood products.

If adopted, the standards would fundamentally alter the organization’s approach to rating forestry products. At present, only wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council qualifies for so-called LEED credits, which are used to certify a building as environmentally sustainable and assign it a rating.

The new standards would open up LEED certification, an increasingly popular benchmark for responsible construction, to any timber certification system that meets a series of sustainability benchmarks.

The proposed standards have undergone multiple rounds of revision and public comment. In the process they have been harshly criticized both by environmental groups, which call them a step backward for sustainability, and by representatives of large corporate forestry interests, which have pushed to have the LEED standards substantially relaxed.

To Scot Horst, senior vice president for LEED at the Green Building Council, the fact that the new standards are being attacked from all sides could signal that it has hit upon a winning formula.

“Nobody likes these changes, which might mean that we’re in a fairly accurate place to be,” Mr. Horst said.

Kathy Abusow, president of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, which represents some of the country’s largest timber producers and has a less rigorous standard for assessing sustainability than that currently recognized by LEED, said her group was far from pleased with the new benchmarks.

“Man, this is a complicated process,” Ms. Abusow said. “There’s just way too many hoops to jump through for just one credit.”

Whether or not the new standards are passed, she said, her group will probably abandon its attempt to gain LEED certification for its membership’s products. “We’re going to put more energy into rating tools that do recognize our forest certification programs,” Ms. Abusow said. “I think we’ve got to move away from this one credit.”

Yet criticism has also come from the Forest Stewardship Council and its allies in the environmental community.

“This is absolutely a watering-down of the standard,” Corey Brinkema, president of the United States office of the Forest Stewardship Council, said in an interview.

Under the new benchmarks, companies could earn LEED credits simply for clearing a “low bar” of prerequisites rather than meeting the much higher standards being practiced at the forefront of sustainable forestry, Mr. Brinkema said.

“The prerequisite level is pretty darn low,” he said. “There’s actually an incentive to buy more of something of a lower standard.”

Among other concerns, Mr. Brinkema contends that the new benchmarks proposed by the Green Building Council loosen protections for old-growth forest and create loopholes allowing forestry companies to permanently convert forested land to other purposes.

Joining the Forest Stewardship Council in opposition to the revised benchmarks are a dozen leading environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, the World Wildlife Fund, the National Wildlife Federation, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace, all of which recently signed a letter harshly criticizing the new standards and urging Green Building Council members to vote against them.

For their part, Green Building Council leaders say the new benchmarks will help bring an end to a policy impasse that has left many worthy sustainable forestry rating systems unable to obtain LEED certification. “There’s an issue in the market that’s not getting resolved,” Mr. Horst said.

The new, more open standards will require all timber producers to meet a minimum sustainability standard, while rewarding companies that exceed this threshold, he said. The overall result would be that more timber producers being rewarded for behaving sustainably, he added.

“The standard or the credit is not going to get watered down,” Mr. Horst said. “It’s not going to happen.”

Results from the vote are expected to be announced in late November.