October 22, 2009
Green Building Council faces critical forest decision
By DENISE PRANGER
Northwest Natural Resource Group
Climate change isn’t just an energy issue; it’s a land-use issue. More than 20 percent of carbon emissions come from the loss of forests, even after counting all the carbon captured by forest growth. That’s a higher percentage than the entire transportation sector all the carbon pumped out by all the ships, trains, planes and automobiles around the world.
Deforestation isn’t just a problem for the developing world. In the last 30 years, 2 million acres of our Western Washington forests have been cleared and lost to development. That’s 2 million acres of unparalleled beauty and productivity. That’s Olympic National Park times two.
Get ready for a new model for Northwest forest management. It’s not a question about whether to cut or not, but how to cut and how to incentivize landowners so they keep their land in forest cover. A new way of making forestry profitable is coming to maturity, one based on market-based conservation, diverse markets and a vision of restoring our human habitat.
It’s an economic model built around Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification of forests and wood products, science-based carbon offset programs such as NW Neutral, the purchase or transfer of development rights, and reemphasizing community-scale production systems. This new model both complements and competes with the traditional forest products industry, creating a new tension that is pulling the industry as a whole in a greener direction.
Keeping the ‘L’ in LEED
We are seeing a similar trend playing out on the national stage within the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which oversees the wildly successful LEED green building rating system. Intense timber industry pressure has led USGBC to evaluate the certified wood credit in LEED, which has been FSC exclusive since inception, and determine whether other certification systems, such as the industry-driven Sustainable Forestry Initiative, should be given credits as well.
USGBC will be making that decision based on a new forest certification benchmark that is nearing completion.
One of the leading arguments for loosening the wood credit and thus lowering the bar for the standards governing the origins of the wood is that the FSC system doesn’t have enough supply, which is a bit of a sucker punch for an emerging market. Fortunately, here in the Northwest we have plenty of FSC supply, great capacity for growth and good things already quietly happening behind the scenes. They include:
• Fort Lewis Army Base has been FSC-certified for several years. The base trains soldiers while managing for spotted owl habitat, rare oak woodlands and other exotic fare through a sophisticated thinning program.
• The Department of Natural Resources certified 145,000 acres in the South Sound last year and is working on another 180,000 on the west end of the Olympic Peninsula. Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark has expressed a desire to eventually certify all state trust lands.
• The city of Seattle has been deliberately and carefully restoring sections of the Cedar River Watershed to improve ecological conditions and harvesting several hundred truckloads of logs a year as a by-product.
• Possibly most important, certification has become accessible and cost-effective for small woodland owners the forests on the front lines of land-use change and the hardest to serve through the Northwest Certified Forestry program, a fast growing association of more than 130 landowners with 45,000 acres collectively.
All of these compelling stories of stewardship embody FSC’s unparalleled assurance of environmental and social safeguards on issues such as: old-growth protection; the exclusion of genetically modified organisms; severe restrictions on land conversion; minimized chemical use; and giving tribes, labor and timber-dependent communities an ongoing voice in the certification process.
While most of the growth in FSC markets to date has been business-to-business, especially in the green building industry, that high level of brand assurance has led to tectonic shifts in the forest industry recently, with major consumer brands such as Staples, The Home Depot, REI, Fed Ex Office, Kinkos, Kleenex and Whole Foods giving preference to FSC products.
For major brands, the combination of a “clean” supply chain and association with an eco-label universally supported by the environmental community, including groups such as Greenpeace and Forest-Ethics, has very real business value.
Northwest mills have responded to the combination of new supplies and downstream demand by getting certified for FSC “chain of custody” helping ensure that a verifiable trail, starting with the labeled product you pluck off the shelf, leads all the way back to the forest of origin.
Regardless of the certification debate, no one disputes that local is good when it comes to wood purchasing. Similar to LEED, local green building programs such as Built Green reward local materials as well as FSC wood, validating what we already know from life-cycle analysis research: that local, FSC-certified wood is the ultimate sustainable building material. Nothing else even comes close.
A local wood economy has been reborn in Olympia, where the Northwest Certified Forestry program has partnered with Olympia Salvage, a reclaimed and sustainably sourced materials clearinghouse, to offer just such products. Local, small-scale producers such as Wild Thyme Farm and Wetset Enterprises offer trim, moldings, beams and other products, all of which were eased out of the woods with tender loving care and manufactured less than an hour from town.
All too often we force the land to cater to our material desires, effectively mining it to suit our whim or outdated conventions, but the lumber for sale at Olympia Salvage is produced based on what the land is capable of providing indefinitely.
Wild Thyme Farm owner John Henrickson says, “The key to turning around the planet is to look to nature and then add ourselves to that restorative power.”
We can only hope that USGBC’s certification decision takes place under the lens of the organization’s guiding principles high-minded values like “reconciling humanity with nature” and “fostering social equity.” It’s a critical decision that has the potential to help preserve forests by providing incentives for great management and cooling the planet down at the same time.
I encourage you to get involved, learn more, and help spread the message that healthy forests are the life blood of the Pacific Northwest, if not the world.
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