Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.
It's hard for the untrained eye to tell, but not all of the wood at Karen and Tom Randall's mill on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington is created equal.
Some logs have come from forests that aren't clear-cut, where water quality, wildlife and wetlands are protected. This wood is manufactured into siding, molding and staircase parts and sold under a label: certified "green" wood. This label guarantees the Randalls' customers that they're buying a product that doesn't harm the environment. Karen Randall says that this is part of a growing trend.
"The timber industry is changing and it's changing a lot and fast," says Randall, whose mill has been certified for one year. "More and more people in this country care about environmental issues, and there are a lot of new regulations. Any normal person can see that we can't keep taking it all; something's got to go back into the ground."
The Randalls were certified by SmartWood, a national group accredited by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an internationally recognized group that has developed a "green label" for wood products managed in sustainable - not clear-cut - forests. The council is composed of environmentalists, community groups and timber manufacturers and has certified about 40 million acres around the world. Recently, the certification bandwagon has been joined by some of the world's leading home-improvement retailers, including Home Depot and Britain's B&Q.
Karen Randall says that soon, certified wood won't just be an option but a requirement.
"There's going to be a point in time when you have to make changes or they'll be made for you," she says. "It's better to make changes and get ahead of the game rather than be told, "you have 60 days to make these changes." "
Guy Lusignan, a forest manager certified by SmartWood in western Washington, agrees with Randall. Under FSC standards, Lusignan prunes and thins trees in his clients' forests with a focus on sustainability.
"We're growing a crop for more than the crop's sake but for a bigger audience that includes deer, elk, salamanders and salmon," says Lusignan, who has been certified for less than a year. "Consumers want to know that the two-by-four they buy isn't coming out of a clear-cut in the Amazon River and damaging the Earth."
Under Lusignan's certification plan, he harvests trees at 80 or 100 years, while Weyerhaeuser, a noncertified timber company, considers trees mature at 40 or 50. In a noncertified forest, most managers plant one species, such as Douglas fir. Under certification, Lusignan manages an array of species because, he says, diversity provides animals more food choices while it strengthens the health of the forest. He likens green-labeled wood to organic vegetables and dolphin-safe tuna.
Industry gets in the game
The Forest Stewardship Council has emerged as the major international certification system. However, large timber companies across the U.S. have created the "Sustainable Forestry Initiative," a program sponsored by the American Forest and Paper Assocation.
According to the SFI Web site, its participants are committed to sustainable forestry. "Program Participants seek to meet the needs of humanity for essential wood and paper products while protecting and enhancing other important forest resource values," reads the Web site.
One participant in the initiative is Plum Creek Timber Co.
"The SFI is beginning to achieve widespread recognition as an environmentally sound set of standards," Charlie Grenier, Plum Creek's executive vice president, told the Missoula Independent. As a member of SFI, Plum Creek must do water quality and wildlife research and work to conserve biological diversity. The company's clear-cut areas can be no larger than 120 acres and it is required to report annually on how it's complying with the Sustainable Forestry Initiative's guiding document.
Critics say the SFI system is a far cry from the rigorous management and external review that the Forest Stewardship Council demands.
"While an important step, SFI does not adequately protect water, wildlife, recreation and ecosystem function," says Kate Heaton of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "SFI guidelines are broad, weak and open-ended, with few fixed on-the-ground performance requirements."
Environmentalists aren't the only groups wary of SFI. Retailers like Home Depot say the industry certification doesn't meet its requirements for green labeling. Home Depot's purchasing guidelines for certified wood products require the use of environmental standards developed outside the industry itself.
"So far, only the Forest Stewardship Council meets that standard," says Kim Woodbury of Home Depot.
Some say that it is only the strength of the Forest Stewardship Council that has prompted industry groups to attempt reform.
"Industry has been led into this kicking and screaming," says Wilderness Society board member Walt Minnick, a former timber company CEO. "The mass merchandisers are the most important factor in the success of forest certification."
According to Minnick, the Council's success in getting huge retailers like Home Depot on board is the key to changing forest management practices by big companies.
"Industry isn't going to do anything on its own," he says. "Certification (by the Council) is the only way that you can get companies to manage for something other than short-term economic benefit, a philosophy other than "grow corn and harvest it." This is the vehicle for achieving objectives of ecosystem management on the industrial timber base in North America."
Rebecca Clarren is an assistant editor at High Country News.