Pulp Fiction? "Some eco-labels for wood are less green than they appear"
Pamplin Media Group, Sustainable Life
Thursday, August 15, 2013
Want to buy sustainably produced lumber for your new deck or house?
It’s not as simple as you’d think.
For years, a debate has raged among supporters of two competing programs that certify wood products were harvested and milled in a sustainable manner.
The Forest Stewardship Council formed in the early 1990s, when environmentalists alarmed by deforestation of tropical forests teamed with industry leaders in Europe to set ecological standards for the cutting and milling of timber. They created the FSC product label to assure consumers those standards were met.
In response, big timber companies in the American Forest and Paper Association created a more lenient certification system, enabling their products to be stamped with the rival Sustainable Forestry Initiative or SFI label.
Many environmentalists, especially the advocacy group ForestEthics, denounce the SFI as greenwashing — giving a green veneer to timber-cutting practices that degrade forests. ForestEthics pressures retail chains to stop carrying SFI-certified wood and paper products.
The fight has ensnared the U.S. Green Building Council and its widely used LEED rating system.
Developers only earn LEED credits for using sustainably harvested wood if it meets or beats FSC standards. Big timber companies, partly shut out of the green building market, have lobbied the Green Building Council — in vain— to accept SFI certification. Turning up the political heat, timber companies have prodded Congress and some states to dump the use of LEED rating systems altogether for government buildings.
Some politicians, such as U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Canby, say the green building exclusion for SFI could punish Oregon’s timber industry, because it’s the predominant certification system here, with 3.2 million acres compared to 566,929 acres for FSC.
Many academics and government foresters are avoiding the fight, arguing that both certification systems improve forest practices and can reasonably claim to promote forest sustainability. But the two camps have decidedly different notions of forest sustainability.
The FSC uses a more robust conservation-based approach to preserving forest ecosystems, says Bob Van Dyk, forest policy manager for the Wild Salmon Center in Portland.
FSC’s national board includes leaders of the World Wildlife Fund and The Nature Conservancy, and it’s endorsed by the Sierra Club and Greenpeace.
In contrast, the SFI is tailored to support the ongoing use of forests to produce timber. Supporters argue that if forests produce ongoing jobs in the woods and revenues from timber-cutting, that thwarts pressure to convert forest lands into subdivisions or other developments.
“The key to this whole thing is we have generations of wood coming up for our kids,” says Bob Luoto, an SFI board member from McMinnville who runs a logging and trucking company.
Though both certification systems arguably help preserve forests, the differences between the two are large enough to drive a log truck through.
Differences are clear cut
The FSC, as it applies in Oregon, generally restricts clearcuts to 6 acres, says Mike Cloughesy, forestry director for the Oregon Forest Resources Institute, a Portland agency created by the Legislature that’s funded by the timber industry and designed to nurture it.
SFI allows clear-cuts that can average up to 120 acres —which can mean one clear cut of 2 acres plus another of 238 acres — says Ryan Temple, president of Sustainable Northwest Wood, a Southeast Portland lumber yard that only sells wood that meets or exceeds FSC standards.
FSC bans persistent and hazardous pesticides and herbicides, Temple says, while some are permitted under SFI. Tetrazine, a known carcinogen banned in Europe and by the FSC, is sprayed by helicopter in Oregon forests certified under SFI, he says.
“That herbicide ends up in a stream,” says Steve Pedery, conservation director for Oregon Wild in Portland. “That may be a salmon-bearing stream. It’s probably a stream that drains into somebody’s water supply.”
FSC bars the use of genetically modified organisms, which are allowed by SFI.
FSC also forbids converting a forest from a diverse ecosystem into one planted with a single species such as Douglas fir, which is permitted by SFI.
Critics say SFI merely sets standards that timber operations in Oregon already must meet under the Oregon Forest Practices Act.
“It’s just a straight-out agricultural model and not a biological or ecological model,” Van Dyk says.
Initially at least, SFI was “straight greenwashing” designed to give the timber industry “green cover,” Van Dyk says.
“As I look at lands that are managed in Oregon under the SFI brand, I’m not comforted that there are strong conservation standards.”
However, he acknowledges the system has improved over the years in response to criticism.
Pedery says SFI may bring “marginal improvements” to forest management in some cases, but he thinks the greenwashing label is fair. “The impression given to the consumer is they bought a sustainably produced piece of wood for their home,” he says. “I don’t think anyone should look at it as a green seal.”
SFI supporters say environmentalists don’t get that timber companies must earn profits to keep the industry thriving here. For timber companies to be competitive in Western Oregon forests, Luoto and other SFI supporters say, they need to rely on clear-cutting and herbicides.
Clear-cutting is a cheaper way to harvest timber. Spraying herbicides on the cleared land allows companies to replant with Douglas firs that grow without competition from other trees and shrubs. Douglas firs won’t regrow if they don’t get sunlight, Luoto says.
“In Western Oregon, especially in the Coast Range, it’s really hard to manage for production without any use of herbicides,” Cloughesy says. “When the industry manages (forest land) under SFI, they manage it as a plantation.”
Without clear-cutting and herbicides, he says, Oregon companies couldn’t compete with their counterparts in New Zealand, Chile and China.
When a consumer sees an SFI-certified product at a store, they are assured the timber company met Oregon’s strict laws to protect wildlife, streams and other environmental assets, Luoto says. While that may mean they didn’t exceed Oregon standards, he says, Idaho, Georgia and other states have more lax environmental laws. Since SFI has one national standard, that means lumber sold at a local Home Depot, produced by Portland-based Stimson Lumber Co. from Idaho timber land, met Oregon’s higher standards, Luoto says.
SFI also requires independent audits of forest practices, something not required by Oregon to assure its laws are followed, Luoto says. SFI also requires loggers and foresters to undergo 32 hours of training, including sessions on state environmental requirements, Luoto says.
SFI also undergoes periodic reviews of its standards, and will come out with revisions in 2015, Luoto says. Temple says the SFI label and its lower standards creates “market confusion” for consumers, but he doesn’t view it as greenwashing. “It’s more the notion of ‘we’ll replant; we want to make sure that there’s always trees there,’ ” he says.
“SFI is a step in the right direction,” Temple says, while FSC might be three steps in the right direction. “There’s room for continuous improvement in any system like this.”