Cutting With Conscience Sustainably Harvested "Certified" Wood is Gaining Popularity

Tired of feeling helpless in the seemingly futile struggle to slow tropical rainforest destruction? Want to see clearcutting of old-growth forests stop but don’t know what to do? Try buying some wood—certified “green” wood that is—guaranteed to come from an environmentally “well-managed” forest.

Since 1990, when the Rainforest Alliance launched its Smart Wood Program, it and several similar independent groups have scientifically evaluated and certified as “well-managed” over 20 forestry operations worldwide. Though green wood certification is not without controversy—skeptics see it as the latest marketing gimmick—many people, foresters and environmentalists alike, consider it an effective tool which can help consumers make informed wood purchasing decisions and influence responsible forest management around the world.

“Certification is not a panacea for forest management improvements and is best used in conjunction with other forest sector initiatives and policies,” says Kate Heaton, associate director of Smart Wood, which has certified forests in Mexico, Brazil, Honduras and Indonesia, as well as in the U.S. “It is, however a promising tool to improve forest management practices.” Unlike boycotts, which she says do not directly improve forest management and can actually make the situation worse by devaluing forests and making them more susceptible to clearing for agriculture, certification is a way to “harness market forces to influence forest management without more regulations.”

Leading the Way

Though there are several regional organizations which now certify wood, only four—Scientific Certification Systems and Smart Wood, which are based in the U.S., and Britain’s SGS and Woodmark—are active internationally. Since no universally accepted guidelines for sustainable forestry exist (though various international organizations, most notable the Forest Stewardship Council, are working towards establishing them), it is these four certifiers which are leading the way in deciding how to evaluate forest management. Though they vary somewhat in their approaches, all four use the same criteria in evaluating whether or not a forest operation is worthy of being declared “well-managed.”

The certifiers consider whether the timber resources are sustainable (produced through a sustained-yield harvest). And they give equal weight to the health of the entire forest ecosystem, which includes adequate wildlife habitat and watershed protection, and the economic and cultural impact of the operation on local communities. “Clearly,” says Debbie Hammel, director of SCS’s Forest Conservation Program, “exemplary forest stewardship entails more than sustained timber production. Equally important is the extent to which the integrity of the forest ecosystem is maintained and the extent to which the operation yields benefits to all pertinent stakeholders.”

It is this scientific and objective approach which has earned SCS and others credibility, among consumers as well as environmentalists and forest managers. Before being certified as well-managed by SCS in 1993, Maine’s Seven Islands Land Company, which manages the largest certified forest in the U.S., had a team of experts which included a forester, a wildlife biologist, and an economist, spend 12 days conducting extensive on-site inspections and interviewing company officials and employees, community leaders, and area environmental interest groups. “The evaluation process was very rigorous,” says company Vice President John McNulty. “We feel SCS certifies in the strictest and most inclusive sense and in a way which pleases environmentalists and foresters alike.” McNulty also credits the certification process with improving company functions and forest management practices.

Buying It

What about consumers? How is green certification, which originated as a direct result of their demand for more information about the origin of the wood they were buying, working for them? Because the concept is relatively new, green wood is not yet available everywhere, nor for all building applications. While the quantity which is distributed nationwide is increasing every day, certain products are available only regionally. In general, according to Seven Islands Marketing Director Tom Goodyear, the more wood you need, especially in the case of a homebuilder’s dimension lumber, the easier it is to get. “As long as it’s a substantial portion of a truckload,” he says, “the contractor can easily specify certified wood. But it would still be difficult for someone to go into a lumberyard and buy three two-by-fours.”

Particular green wood products, on the other hand, are easier to find and the market is improving all the time. Retail giant Home Depot, for example, recently began carrying a line of shelving made from SCS-certified Collins Pine Company wood. Sevens Islands Land Company provides wood for Maibec cedar shingles, dimension hardwood lumber, and hardwood flooring which is distributed nationwide. Certified Smart Wood is used in outdoor furniture sold by retailer Smith and Hawken. All of these products carry either the SCS or Smart Wood label and are guaranteed made from “wood harvested from a well-managed forest.”

“We maintain a `chain-of-custody’ from stump to store that proves our wood isn’t mixed with non-Seven Islands wood by the trucker, miller or manufacturer,” says McNulty. “If a wholesaler, retailer or manufacturer says he is selling Seven Islands green-certified wood, or a product made with it, we’ll have a paper trail to prove it.”

Certified wood doesn’t have to be purchased as unfinished boards. Thos. Moser, a cabinet-making company with offices in four cities, became in 1995 the first U.S. company to make furniture from certified wood. “We believe no tree should be cut down unless there is some certainty that the timber from it will be replaced,” says David Q. Moser, a company manager. Moser’s black cherry wood comes from SCS-certified Kane Hardwood, which owns a 117,000-acre forest in Pennsylvania.

Connie Best and Laurie Wayburn, cofounders of the Pacific Forest Trust, built their new timber frame/straw bale house in Boonville, California primarily from lumber certified by the Institute for Sustainable Forestry (ISF) in Redway, California. Cherry flooring and the lumber for the stair treads and ceiling paneling was supplied by EcoTimber International of San Francisco. “Wood needs to be appreciated for the remarkable resource it is—and treated with respect, since it takes so long to grow and is not limitless in supply,” says Best.

And certified wood isn’t limited to home use. Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the U.S., recently finished construction of an “eco-mart” prototype store in Lawrence, Kansas built entirely from 800,000 board feet of Douglas fir plywood and southern yellow pine certified by The Rogue Institute of Ashland, Oregon and Global Resource Consultants of Manassas, Virginia.

Price an Issue

Perhaps the biggest question for concerned consumers is whether or not green wood will cost more. Certification, always voluntary on the part of forestland

managers, can be costly and is seen by some as merely an excuse to raise product prices. “Something should reward landowners for their efforts in becoming certified,” acknowledges McNulty, “but the reward isn’t necessarily in higher costs to consumers, at least not enough to be a deterrent; it may be in the form of a market advantage or more efficient money-saving operations.”

McNulty and others involved in marketing green wood agree that the best thing consumers can do to influence the market and make green wood competitive is simply to begin asking for it. “Some retailers and distributors are reluctant to stock certified wood not knowing whether there is a demand,” says the owner of a small custom mill in Maine which distributes Seven Islands certified wood. “We’ve spoken with retailers across the country and nearly all of them say they’ll get green wood if customers ask for it.”

So now’s the time to start asking—it could be the most “forest friendly” action you take all year.