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Seattle Times: "LEED green-building standards must not be diluted"

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April 12, 2010 -- The U.S. Green Building Council sets standards for environmentally superior buildings and must not dilute the value of its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design label, writes guest columnist Denis Hayes.

IN 1993, appalled by rapacious timber harvesting practices around the world, a group of organizations and independent experts formed the Forest Stewardship Council. FSC seeks to reform the industry by employing market forces. Because the council certifies forests that are very well-managed and by maintaining a chain of custody to the point of sale, FSC-labeled products can generally command a premium price in the market.

The FSC seal has come to be recognized as the gold standard for good forestry in the 57 nations where the council is active. Today, there are116 million FSC-certified forested acres in North America. Their owners include more than 30,000 family-owned forests.

In 1994, the American Forest and Paper Association, an industry trade group, launched the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) to compete with FSC and sow confusion about green labels. In its earliest years, SFI was so appallingly weak that it was almost universally condemned as "green washing." More recently, it has toughened its standards somewhat.

However, the Forest Stewardship Council's criteria remain significantly stricter for, among other things, clear cutting, pesticides, water quality, and protection of representative ecosystems in their natural state.

One of the most important factors in the council's growth in America was a decision by the U.S. Green Building Council to give points only for FSC-certified wood in buildings seeking to obtain its prestigious Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) labels for environmentally superior buildings.

SFI recently launched an aggressive campaign to persuade LEED to accept its certification as well. If successful, this would suggest that there is no meaningful difference between the competing forestry standards. That would be a huge blow to the tougher FSC standard.

This strong-arm effort by industrial forest companies is being strongly fought by a coalition of the nation's dominant green architectural firms as well as the leaders of many of the nation's largest environmental groups (These include the heads of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Wilderness Society, Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, Defenders of Wildlife and, locally, the Washington Environmental Council, Conservation Northwest, and Seattle Audubon.)

In the most recent SFI ploy in this campaign, the chairman of the SFI Review Board authored an opinion column in the Times ["LEED standards should embrace products from state's well-managed forests," Opinion, April 2].

The column claimed, disingenuously, that the FSC benchmark favors foreign timber producers over domestic suppliers, and that it harms small family forest land owners by favoring large industrial forestry operations. This is, to state it gently, at variance with the truth. Far from harming small family operations, FSC gives them a unique opportunity to command a market premium for careful stewardship. That's why 30,000 family forests have chosen FSC certification.

FSC certification is accessible to anyone willing to abide by its standards — including such "small family forestland owners" as Weyerhaeuser, Plum Creek, West Fraser and Smurfit-Stone — the CEOs of which are all on the SFI board. They have spent 15 years attempting to sabotage FSC, but they are welcome to join it.

The column argues that LEED should embrace "greater inclusivity" by recognizing all forest certification systems. But inclusivity is the polar opposite of market transformation. The whole reason for LEED certification, as with FSC forestry, is to use the market to promote environmental excellence, not merely compliance with the law.

If the U.S. Green Building Council yields to timber industry demands to include the weaker SFI standards for forest products, the early criticism from architects and environmentalists will quickly rise to a crescendo. LEED certification would lose much of the green cachet it currently enjoys; FSC would suffer a serious body blow; and our forests would be the losers.

Denis Hayes is the President of The Bullitt Foundation and the International Chairman of Earth Day 2010.