Time for Certification Systems to Do their Job

By Jack Petree

Wood, in the form of lumber, beams, and other products, has long been considered one of the world’s most important climate change reduction materials; almost unique in its sustainability, flexibility, and overall usefulness.

Despite wood’s unassailable position as an environmental superstar, it’s treated almost with disdain by many green building certification bodies; the number of “points” available to builders using “green” lumber measured against the considerably higher costs of “certified green” lumber makes the use of certified wood almost a negative to a builder. Worse, much of the wood available in the United States with the most potential significance in terms of environmental enhancement cannot be certified as “green.”

Give Wasted Wood Its Due

Tens of billions of board feet of recoverable wood, capable of being manufactured into construction products, are wasted each year with the carbon they sequester today going into the atmosphere tomorrow, while substitute products with a larger carbon footprint, notably steel and concrete, take the place of that lumber.

Wood lumber advocates need to put a larger value on working with “green” certification agencies to give wood that would otherwise be wasted—insect killed, removals from rights of way, partially burned, wind blown, urban removals, and so on—a place at the certification table.

Wood’s Environmental Benefits

About four years ago, the Forest Products Laboratory issued a report, Science Supporting the Economic and Environmental Benefits of Using Wood and Wood Products in Green Building Construction. The report, according to then Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack “…confirms what many environmental scientists have been saying for years. Wood should be a major component of American building and energy design. The use of wood provides substantial environmental benefits, provides incentives for private landowners to maintain forest land, and provides a critical source of jobs in rural America.”

David Cleaves, the U.S. Forest Service Climate Change Advisor at the time, expanded on Vilsack’s remarks saying, “The argument that somehow non-wood construction materials are ultimately better for carbon emissions than wood products is not supported by our research. Trees removed in an environmentally responsible way allow forests to continue to sequester carbon through new forest growth. Wood products continue to benefit the environment by storing carbon long after the building has been constructed.”

If wood’s so wonderful, why do the various “green” building certification systems virtually assure the most environmentally significant lumber available cannot be used in buildings destined by their builders to achieve one or another certification company’s version of a “green-built” designation?

At least part of the answer to that question is money. The chain of custody required by certification firms means forest owners see significant costs in becoming certified, mills see cost increases, architects and other green construction professionals must achieve very expensive certifications to design and construct buildings and, in turn, all those extra costs are passed on to the end users. Big bucks often mean resistance to change.

But Spruce Budworms, silver thaws, pine beetles, typhoons, catastrophic wildfires, and hundreds of other events besetting forests seldom ask whether the afflicted forest is certified!

So what happens?

Dead and Dying Trees Are Still Green

Millions of dead and dying trees, which perfectly usable in providing billions of board feet of quality lumber to the construction and other marketplaces, cannot qualify for certification because they do not originate in a U.S. Green Building Council’s single acceptable certified lumber source, a FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) forest.

Many, or most, of the other certification systems supposedly established to provide “green” or environmentally supportive lumber to that construction marketplace also ignore the resource and end up harvesting healthy forests to presumably enhance the environment, leaving dead and dying trees to rot or burn, releasing their tons of carbon into the atmosphere; all to satisfy the ironclad dictates of what often seems to be a whimsical lumber certification system.

It should be remembered the various certification entities purporting to assure the North American public is supplied with responsibly harvested, processed, and delivered lumber are businesses for the most part—big businesses with big dollars at stake. Each of those entities took the task of certification on themselves. Because they are mostly tax-exempt nonprofits making claims regarding their support of the environment, they should have an obligation to achieve the service they claim to offer.

The Next Step

It is incumbent on those in the forest products industry, small businesses and large, to push associations or other groups they are active in to begin putting more pressure on certification entities to consider certifying tree stems that would otherwise be wasted, burned, or underutilized. 

Associations should also be actively informing architects and builders about the environmental benefits of responsibly produced lumber. In addition, we need to participate locally—ask city and county councils and others to recognize the issues with certification systems and make provisions for the use of more environmentally suitable materials like insect-killed or storm-damaged wood products.  The environment we profess to love demands all that of us.  

Jack Petree is a writer, advertising consultant, and President of Tradeworld Communications.

TimberWest November/December 2013
March/April 2017

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