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Panama City News Herald: Competition is good for economy, environment

Friday, April 26, 2013


Many rural areas in Florida depend on a thriving timber industry to support employment for local residents and generate tax revenues for municipal services. Those involved in the harvesting and retailing of timber need multiple venues through which to market their products, in order to remain successful. Landowners and timber companies attain sustainable forest certifications to add a layer of credibility to their products.

Much like an “organically grown” sticker on fresh produce, forest certification is a means of notifying consumers that paper and wood products come from land managed in accordance with environmental and sustainable standards. The increase in green building practices provides ample opportunities for the forest products sector. Unfortunately, numerous government policies make market access to building projects for Florida tree farmers unnecessarily difficult.

Specifically, the problem is one of exclusion. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building regulations are enforced at the local, state and federal levels. LEED acknowledges only one type of forest certification program as contributing to sustainability, while ignoring the fact that millions of acres of our state’s woodlands are certified by other, equally effective sustainability programs, like the American Tree Farm System (ATFS) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI).

A creation of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), many developers are familiar with the LEED program as a third-party rating system that designates a building project as “green.” Builders receive recognition by using sustainable materials during construction phases in an energy-efficient manner. This is certainly a worthy goal. Unfortunately, the incentives created by LEED undermine this objective by limiting the LEED standard for sustainable lumber to only that lumber certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). By limiting the timber eligible for its sustainable sourcing credits, LEED chokes market access for Florida businesses. SFI and ATFS recognize over 2.5 million acres of forestland in Florida, while FSC certifies just over 100 acres. Distorting the market in favor of rarely-used FSC timber unnaturally restricts commerce for businesses that utilize SFI and ATFS-certified wood.

If LEED markets were more open to ATFS and SFI certified wood, more American timber would find its way into American homes, offices and schools. Those concerned about sustainability should welcome this, as FSC certifies 90 percent of its land in foreign countries, where foresters are held to lower standards than American landowners. Promoting a more competitive certification market would also lower the overall cost of wood, as FSC timber often comes with a 15 to 20 percent price hike.

There is no sound reason why LEED fails to recognize the ATFS and SFI certification standards as contributing to sustainability. The USGBC has not given a credible explanation for its preferential treatment of FSC. Organizations as diverse as the National Association of State Foresters, Conservation Fund, Terra Choice and the Mother Nature Network vouch for the credibility of ATFS and SFI. Even the USGBC’s international counterparts are supportive of a more inclusive framework. As standards for construction markets evolve, it is imperative that elected officials and regulatory agencies listen to a variety of stakeholders, and not be influenced by a forceful, vocal minority.

When folks take an objective look at the facts, it becomes clear that a common-sense method to improve sustainability in our buildings consists of removing obstacles that block high-quality wood from entering green markets. Promoting competition among certification programs will yield better economic and environmental outcomes.

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