Green certification for lumber is something like organic certification for food; it allows consumers to choose products that have been harvested from sustainably managed forests. In theory, the demand for green lumber will drive more timber companies to use environmentally friendly practices.
"(Certification) has become the language of global conservation," says Forest Service spokesman Dan Jiron. "Why wouldn’t we at least look at it?"
Environmentalists respond that there are plenty of reasons not to consider certification. "Zero-cut" proponents, who believe national forests should be off-limits to all timber harvest, say certification would wrongly legitimize logging on public land. Even those who accept some logging on public land are wary of the idea. "Certification could be used inappropriately to greenwash national forest management," says Rick Brown, a senior resource specialist with Defenders of Wildlife.
Under the pilot program, independent auditors will compare the management of seven national forests to current sustainable-forestry standards. Of the four assessments slated for the West, just one is under way: the Lakeview Federal Stewardship Unit, in southern Oregon’s Fremont-Winema National Forest. The Lakeview Unit has been managed collaboratively since 1998 by agencies, citizens, local businesses and environmental groups, who have agreed on a common goal of restoring the forest’s health (HCN, 9/27/04: A timber town learns to care for the forest).
"It’s a great place to test (certification) standards," says Paul Harlan of the Collins Companies, a timber company that is funding the Lakeview assessment in partnership with the Forest Service.
The Forest Stewardship Council has already certified the Collins Companies’ privately held lands in the region. Forests earn the "green" seal only after a team of independent auditors, including ecologists and social scientists, carries out a rigorous assessment of land-management practices. Auditors check certified forests every five years to ensure their continued sustainability.
Harlan, who is also chair of the Forest Stewardship Council’s board of directors, says that certification is a "powerful conservation tool" that could push national forest managers to become more ecologically sensitive. Certification standards could prohibit timber companies from entering roadless areas, for example, or ban the cutting of old-growth trees.
But to receive actual certification, the forests would have to be evaluated against standards that address concerns specific to public lands. And those standards don’t yet exist: The council says it won’t write them until there is public consensus about the amount of logging that’s appropriate on public lands. Such consensus, everyone agrees, may be a long time coming.