Next time you consider home improvements, head to the store and ask about the growing line of certified-wood products. You'll help reduce clearcuts and other harmful logging practices in favor of greener forests.
By Ted Kerasote ~ Photography by Craig Cutler
The weekend project looms. It may be building a shed or a deck, installing new shelves in your bathroom or kitchen, or buying a dining room table and chairs. So you head down to the lumberyard or the furniture store--and then you remember. Forests are falling all over the world to satisfy your wood needs. You know that forestry can be done in a sustainable way, and you'd like to support these practices. But now, faced with stacks of cedar, redwood, and oriented strand board, or with pine tables and mahogany chairs, how do you choose lumber or finished-wood products that haven't left a swath of clearcuts behind them?
Fortunately, these days an increasing number of wood products bear a hangtag certifying that they come from trees grown using the principles of "sustainable," "eco," or "well-managed" forestry. Unfortunately, the language of wood certification remains imprecise. Unlike food labels, which have been developed over decades, wood-certification labels are still in an embryonic state, and the standards reflect many shades of gray. As a result, the consumer still has to do some homework.
The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is trying to help. Created in 1993, its certification system has widespread support from the world's top environmental groups. The FSC, based in Oaxaca, Mexico, accredits international certifiers that follow its standards (see "Principled Forestry"). Those standards call on logging operations to consider, for example, alternatives to herbicides and pesticides, as well as alternatives to the conversion of "natural forests"--which the group defines as forests that retain "many of the principal characteristics and key elements of native ecosystems"--into monocultured tree plantations.
The group's third-party certifiers conduct on-the-ground inspections of logging sites, sometimes using their own regional standards, which are at least as rigorous as the FSC's worldwide standards. Before certifiers give their seal of approval, they spend two to three days inspecting the applicant's woods. Afterward, they spend several months doing follow-up work to ensure that the forests continue to meet their criteria.
The FSC recognizes two wood certifiers in the United States--the SmartWood Program, based in Vermont, and Scientific Certification Systems, located in California--and four in Canada, including the Silva Forest Foundation of British Columbia.
A recent inspection done by Silva demonstrates what many conservationists consider to be the best principles of sustainable forestry as outlined by the FSC. Rod Blake, who owns the timber rights on a 1,500-acre woodlot in south-central British Columbia, believed that his logging methods could keep his forest healthy for generations, so he decided to apply for certification. Blake describes the attributes of a healthy forest as "stable soils, clean water, natural flora and fauna," and he further maintains that a forest shouldn't show any "long-term evidence of intrusion" after it has been logged.
When Silva inspected Blake's property, it found that the tree felling he had done had been highly selective. There were no clearcuts, no burned-over slash piles, no erosion along the rivers and creeks, all of which had retained their forest cover. Silva looked for and found snags--standing dead trees--and plenty of woody debris that benefits birds and prevents soil erosion. The haul roads were so narrow that they resembled trails. Wildlife abounded. In addition, Blake had consulted with the hikers, campers, and native communities that also use his timbering area, and all of them had signed off on his logging plan. For all of this, Blake earned the FSC seal of approval.
Much larger holdings than Rod Blake's have been certified in Canada and the United States, including 585,000 acres of state-owned forest in Minnesota and 2.2 million acres in Pennsylvania. In New York, 700,000 acres of forest have been certified.
So far, however, the FSC has certified only 6.4 million acres in this country, which produce less than 1 percent of the nation's wood sales. In the United States, the Home Depot, the world's largest lumber and home-improvement retailer, is working with the World Resources Institute to determine which of the world's forests are now endangered. The company plans to stop selling wood from these places by the end of 2002, and it is pressuring its suppliers to provide FSC-certified wood.
Outside the United States, 38.6 million acres in 34 nations have received some form of certification from the FSC. But despite the group's efforts to double the area of its certified forests each year, it has been unable to keep up with the skyrocketing global demand for eco-friendly wood products. In the United Kingdom, for example, an 89-member buyers' group of companies has committed itself to buying, selling, and manufacturing
"The ultimate goal of certified forestry is maintaining the ecological integrity of the whole forest and the full range of species that live there. If we can reward forest managers for doing a better job through our pocketbooks, it's going to have a longer-term effect than legislation."
independently certified forest products. The group accounts for $4.8 billion, or 15 percent, of the United Kingdom's total wood consumption. Last year in Sweden, home-furnishings retailer IKEA announced that it would cease buying wood from noncertified sources.
Sensing an opportunity, other wood-certification organizations have fallen in line, although their standards aren't as rigorous as the FSC's. For instance, groups like the American Forest and Paper Association (which operates a Sustainable Forestry Initiative) and the Canadian Standards Association don't have certification labels. By contrast, the FSC's label states that it is "your guarantee that the forest it came from was managed to protect water quality and wildlife habitat as well as recreational opportunities."
Nonetheless, the FSC is still a work in progress. For one thing, there is considerable latitude in what logging operations can do and still be certified; for example, under certain conditions, foresters can clear-cut as much as 40 acres or apply herbicides. In addition, a debate is raging over exactly what constitutes a "natural" forest or native ecosystem.
Controversial certifications have occurred in Costa Rica, Gabon, and Papua New Guinea. In some cases, certification was based on shoddy or missing information. In other cases, there was questionable compliance with FSC principles. In Gabon, the FSC eventually reversed a certification granted by one of its field representatives, SGS Qualifor. Now SGS, which is based in the United Kingdom, is considering awarding FSC certification to Western Forest Products, a timber company whose clear-cutting of brown bear and salmon habitat in British Columbia has been opposed by conservationists for years.
While some certifiers are alarmed by the effects of such decisions, others aren't quite so gloomy. Wendy Vasbinder of the Silva Forest Foundation believes that "even though there is a significant push by the timber industry to influence the process in British Columbia, local certifiers like Silva will be able to maintain their own stringent standards that go above and beyond those of the FSC." Jeff Wartelle of the Certified Forest Products Council, a Beaverton, Oregon, group that acts as a clearinghouse for distributors of certified-wood products, also reminds consumers that the "FSC is at the leading edge of forest certification. The organization may need tweaking, and it may still fall short, but it's our perspective that if you're using FSC-certified wood, you're doing the best you can in the world today."
So the next time you're in the market for some serious lumber, be a savvy buyer and look for retailers that carry certified-wood products (see "A Shopping Guide to Greener, Healthier Forests"). If you look for finished products that display the FSC logo, you can choose a kitchen cabinet made of wood from a certified forest that uses selective cutting over one whose wood came from a clear-cut forest. Eventually, such buying will reward responsible forestry, sending a signal to certifiers and wood producers alike that the market is ready for greener forests.
"I have a friend who says, 'Forestry isn't rocket science. It's much more complicated than that,'" says Robert Bryan, the forest and wetlands ecologist for the Maine Audubon Society, who co-chairs a group that is developing regional standards for certified wood. "The ultimate goal of certified wood is maintaining the ecological integrity of the whole forest and the full range of habitat for species that live there. If we can reward forest managers for doing a better job through our pocketbooks, it's going to have a longer-term effect than legislation that sets only minimal standards."
Ted Kerasote's most recent book is Heart at Home. In the January-February 1997 Audubon, he wrote about building his Wyoming home out of ecologically sound materials.
The Forest Stewardship Council's guiding statement, a document called "FSC Principles and Criteria," runs more than 4,000 words. It outlines the rigorous standards landowners must meet in order to receive certification for the wood they sell. Here, we highlight the principles that govern the practices commonly abused in conventional logging.
1 Forest management shall conserve biological diversity, along with water resources, soil, and unique and fragile ecosystems and landscapes. It shall maintain the ecological functions of a "natural forest" that retains the complexity and structure of native ecosystems.
2 Forest management shall promote the development and adoption of environmentally friendly, nonchemical methods of pest management and strive to avoid the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides.
3 Old-growth forests and mature second-growth forests and sites of major environmental, social, or cultural significance shall be conserved. Such areas shall not be replaced by tree plantations, which significantly alter original ecosystems.
4 The legal and customary rights of indigenous peoples to use and manage their lands, territories, and resources shall be recognized and respected.
5 Forest management shall maintain
or enhance the long-term social and economic well-being of forest workers
and local communities.
The Forest Stewardship Council has certified only 6.4 million acres of forest in the United States, an area yielding less than 1 percent of the nation's wood sales. But the Rainforest Action Network reports that a quarter of the U.S. lumber market has pledged to eliminate the use of old-growth wood and to sell alternatives.
Besides lumber, there are a variety of products made from certified wood that are already for sale, including Endura butcher blocks (503-233-7090) and guitars made by Gibson (800-444-2766) and Martin (800-633-2060). Look for the FSC logo branded on the wood or on a hangtag, and if you don't find certified wood, ask. It can cost 50 percent more than conventional wood, although sometimes the price is roughly the same. But remember: You'll be planting the seeds today for a burgeoning market tomorrow.
Where to Go
The Certified Forest Products Council is the best outlet for finding distributors of certified products (503-590-6600; www.certifiedwood.org). Here is a small sampling of what's available.
Andersen Windows (windows and patio doors; 888-888-7020; www.andersenwindows.com)
Gaiam Inc. (clothing, food, candles, and other ecologically correct products; 877-989-6321; www.gaiam.com)
Gardener's Supply (retail catalogue company; 888-833-1412; www.gardenerssupply.com)
The Home Depot (home-improvement products; 800-430-3376; www.homedepot.com)
Lowe's (home-improvement products; 800-445-6937; www.lowes.com)
Premdor (interior and exterior doors; 800-663-3667; www.premdor.com)
Smith & Hawken (home furnishings, clothing; 800-940-1170; www.smith-hawken.com)
Sylvania Certified (retail and wholesale garden furniture, doors, decking, and flooring; 800-468-6139; www.certifiedwood.com)
The Wood Police
Forest Stewardship Council The FSC accredits third-party certifiers and encourages the development of national and regional forest-management standards (202-342-0413; www.fscus.org).
SmartWood Program An arm of the Rainforest Alliance--the New York City-based environmental group--and recognized by the FSC, the mission of the SmartWood Program is to conserve forests by identifying and promoting environmentally sound forest-management practices, making sure that foresters adhere to strict international standards (802-434-5491; www.smartwood.org).
Silva Forest Foundation The SFF is the sole Canadian-based wood certifier sanctioned by the FSC. It identifies timber-management operations that conduct what it calls "eco-forestry"--logging that protects and maintains entire ecosystems, including human communities (250-226-7222; www.silvafor.org).
Scientific Certification Systems Recognized by the FSC, Scientific Certification Systems engages in a wide variety of third-party testing, focusing on the long-term sustainability of forests (510-832-1415; www.scs1.com).