As USGBC Tackles Wood Issue, Are Any Forests Out of Bounds For Green Buildings?
Bill Walsh - May 31, 2006
A May 23, 2006 US Green Building Council press release announced "USGBC Board Tackles [the] Wood Issue." 
The Board has taken the unusual step of sending proposed new credit language, and a supporting whitepaper, to the LEED Steering Committee who will decide how the membership will consider and vote on the proposals. 
The USGBC Board is recommending changes to the LEED Rating System that would eliminate the distinction between wood and other bio-based materials (e.g., cork or bamboo). One change would make all bio-based materials eligible for a LEED credit based on compliance with an as yet undefined "robust" certification similar to that now offered to wood products by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Raising the bar for a bio-based materials credit may be a good idea.
Then the Board goes out of bounds by recommending a new LEED credit for just about any wood, no matter how it was grown or harvested, as long as the harvest has not been proven "illegal." This would grant timber industry trade associations what they have long sought -- LEED recognition of their notorious greenwash labeling system -- the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). Lowering the bar for obtaining a LEED credit for wood products is a very bad idea.
USGBC's Board justifies these proposals as a "response to the escalating debate over wood and wood certification" in LEED. But there is no legitimate debate over wood certification. Forest conservation groups overwhelmingly agree that the only credible certification system is the program run by the FSC. 
Rob Watson, a USGBC Board member and Senior Scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, offered a more candid explanation: "We needed to start the process because, like it or not, AFPA [timber industry trade association] efforts to undermine the adoption of LEED nationally are working and we need to take the 'LEED is anti-wood' arrow out of their quiver." But LEED is not anti-wood, as we shall see.
The objections being tackled here are the contrived arguments of the timber industry trade association -- the American Forest Products and Paper Association (AFPA) -- hell bent on undermining the FSC certification process. They are turning up the heat on the USGBC precisely because the FSC consensus certification, and the existing LEED credit, is beginning to work and restrict unsustainable logging practices.
For over a decade multiple stakeholders have negotiated in good faith with timber companies to craft a consensus-based FSC standard for environmentally preferable wood. The current LEED credit for FSC-certified wood is heralded as "a turning point in the market for FSC-certified wood products."  Approximately 33% of LEED-certified projects have achieved the certified wood credit; in some markets such as the Pacific Northwest, the achievement level is 42 percent. 
The record is unambiguous. The existing LEED credit is an effective, possibly an essential market stimulus to catalyze responsible, sustainable forestry practices -- perfectly fulfilling the mission of the USGBC to foster a sustainable materials economy and keep the market moving in that direction.
Acceding to the AFPA pressure campaign and granting a new LEED credit to uncertified wood or wood certified by an industry controlled greenwash "certification" system does not make LEED or the USGBC stronger. It makes the green building movement weaker by undermining the established and effective multi-stakeholder consensus process that gives FSC certification -- and LEED -- legitimacy in a market place that is fast becoming bewildered by competing green labels and certifications.
If tackling the wood issue risks losing this much ground, let's try another play.
 USGBC press release, May 23, 2006, http://www.usgbc.org/News/PressReleaseDetails.aspx?ID=2322
 The LEED Steering Committee is scheduled to meet next week. The Whitepaper and proposed credit language can be found here: https://www.usgbc.org/ShowFile.aspx?DocumentID=1423
 Going to market Builders hope to find a wider variety of Forest Stewardship Council-certified products as green building grows in demand by Allison Ryan, Daily Journal of Commerce, Portland, OR, March 23, 2006, http://djcoregon.com/news/2006/03/23/going-to-market/