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Green-stamping’ of Timber Companies Comes Under Scrutiny

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The New Standard, January 12, 2007; Conservationists say a major certifier of environmentally “sustainable” foresting practices in the US offers its approval too easily and is too hesitant to take action against firms that harm the environment.

January 12, 2007


The NewStandard

The buzzword "green" has become a valuable marketing asset in the timber industry, but environmentalists say it is applied all-too readily, as one of the main certification programs merely provides a toothless form of "green-stamping."

In December, two conservation groups filed complaints with board members operating the certification program, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, asking them to take a hard look at two companies’ practices and demand changes. As consumers look for ecologically friendly products in everything from Christmas cards to furniture, environmentalists also see the challenges as an important test of the Initiative’s own credibility in designating such products.

The complaints involve Plum Creek Timber, a major logging and real estate firm in the Northeast, and Weyerhaeuser, the largest timber company in the Pacific Northwest. Both companies’ CEOs sit on the fifteen-person Sustainable Forestry Board, along with three other industry representatives, five CEOs of environmental groups and five members from the broader forestry field.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine complains that the Initiative has certified Plum Creek as "sustainable," even though last year, Maine fined the company $57,000 for illegal logging – the largest such penalty ever levied by the state.

According to internal documents obtained from various Maine agencies by the Natural Resources Council and reviewed by The NewStandard, Plum Creek allegedly committed several violations of state law, including logging too many trees without a permit, developing a power-line corridor without a permit, and polluting streams. Plum Creek also allegedly logged aggressively in deer wintering habitats, making them inhospitable for the animals during the harsh season.

The Sustainable Forestry Initiative’s certification of Weyerhaeuser flies in the face of the Seattle Audubon Society’ insistence that the corporation is to blame for harming endangered spotted owls with its logging in southwest Washington.

Under the Sustainable Forestry Initiative’s rules, Weyerhaeuser and Plum Creek have 45 days to respond to the challenges. After that, Initiative staff will appoint one environmentalist, one forestry expert and one independent auditor to investigate the situation.

Bill Banzhaf, president of the Sustainable Forestry Board, told The NewStandard an investigation could lead to the complaints being dropped, or the companies could be ordered to make changes to maintain certification. The organization could also choose to decertify the companies if it finds they cannot comply with its criteria. Banzhaf said no company has been decertified in the past, though one was ordered to change its practices to maintain its certification.

Industry-Friendly Alternative?

The American Forest & Paper Association, an industry group, created the Sustainable Forestry Initiative in 1994. According to Banzhaf, the group currently certifies about 84 companies for activities in 126 million acres of forest.

Some environmentalists have long described the Initiative as a façade. They say corporations support it as an industry-friendly alternative to the Forest Stewardship Council, an international certification body with stricter standards and monitoring procedures.

Banzhaf said the Sustainable Forestry Initiative did have problems with neutrality in the 1990s, but has been completely independent of the American Forest & Paper Association since 2002.

Daniel Hall, of the nonprofit conservation group Forest Ethics, is skeptical.

"The [Forest Stewardship Council] is in our view the one credible forest-certification program out there," Hall told TNS.

Environmentalists prefer the Forest Stewardship Council for "green" certification because it mandates compliance with a wider range of criteria than the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. The Council requires that local indigenous communities have timber-management rights; that forestry workers are paid a living wage; that forests are maintained in large-enough chunks to absorb carbon dioxide; that old-growth forests are not logged; and that legal ownership and long-term management plans are in place.

Hall and other critics of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative point out that its criteria don’t explicitly prohibit logging old-growth forests – biologically diverse forests containing very large, old trees that have generally not ever been subjected to clear-cutting or burning.

The Sustainable Forestry Initiative says on its website that its objectives include ensuring long-term forest productivity, protecting water quality in streams, promoting the efficient use of forest resources and "promoting continual improvement in the practice of sustainable forestry."

Shawn Cantrell, executive director of the Seattle Audubon Society, said, "In principle what they outline is a positive thing, but we have had questions about whether those things are actually implemented on the ground, what kind of inspection and enforcement mechanisms exist."

Banzhaf said each company must be audited annually by an independent firm to maintain its certification. Weyerhaeuser spokesperson Frank Mendizabal said the company has been audited by Pricewaterhouse Coopers and found in compliance with Initiative criteria.

Part of the Battle

The certification challenges against Plum Creek and Weyerhaeuser fold into broader disputes between environmental groups and timber companies.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine has been protesting Plum Creek’s plan to build residential and commercial properties on about 400,000 acres in the North Woods. The company has already started "aggressive" logging in preparation for the development, according to Cathy Johnson, the Natural Resources Council’s project director.

"If they can’t be trusted to follow basic forestry laws, how can they be trusted to develop one of our most beautiful natural areas?" said Johnson.

Plum Creek spokesperson Kathy Budinick told TNS the violations leading to the $57,000 fine in 2002 were the result of the company not knowing about changes to state laws regarding logging permits, and that the company self-reported the problems and has been in compliance with state law since then.

Similarly, the complaint against Weyerhaeuser constitutes the latest chapter in an ongoing legal battle between that company and environmentalists trying to save the Northern Spotted Owl, which the US government designated an endangered species in 1990.

Weyerhaeuser spokesman Mendizabal said that at that time, the company halted most of its logging in southwest Washington while research and protection plans for the owl were drawn up. Though the company resumed logging several years later, Mendizabal said it still monitors the situation.

Despite protections, environmental groups estimate that the owls’ population in Washington has declined by about 50 percent since the listing.

This fall, the Washington Forest Law Center filed suit on behalf of the Seattle and Kittitas Audubon societies charging state conservation agencies and Weyerhaeuser with violating the Endangered Species Act by destroying hundreds of acres of spotted-owl habitat. The suit also alleges that existing state conservation standards for spotted owls are inadequate.

The suit says that state-authorized logging by Weyerhaeuser harms spotted owls "by causing significant habitat modification or degradation that significantly impairs essential spotted-owl behavioral patterns, including nesting, roosting, foraging and dispersal."

Weyerhaeuser’s Mendizabal calls the challenge filed by the Seattle Audubon Society with the Sustainable Forestry Initiative a ploy to advance the lawsuit.

"We’ve been in business over 100 years in the same forests, so we think we know something about managing sustainably," Mendizabal said. He said the company is also studying the effect of barred owls, a predator, on spotted-owl populations.

The Seattle Audubon Society alleges that Weyerhaeuser’s effect on the spotted owl violates the Sustainable Forestry Initiative’s stated principle that certified companies "promote the protection of wildlife."

"Right now they’re doing significant timber harvests in known owl habitat areas that are ultimately going to chase the few remaining owls in that entire region out," said Cantrell.

Johnson of the Natural Resource Council said that if the companies hold onto their certification despite all the allegations against them, it will raise "the huge question of whether [Sustainable Forestry Initiative] certification means anything at all."


© 2007 The NewStandard