Consumers Nudge Timber Firms to Prove They're Worthy

Environmentalists' long-running campaigns against clear-cut timber harvesting are not only beginning to change industry practices but are pushing companies to seek certification of their good citizenship.

Generally, this involves getting an audit from a specialized firm that reviews their compliance with environmental laws and forest management practices - issues of replanting, protection of streams, habitat preservation, and attention to biodiversity.

"Certification of our products is becoming more important," says Craig Neeser, senior vice-president of the solid-wood group at MacMillan Bloedel Ltd. He put in some years as a timber salesman on his way up the corporate ladder, so he can attest to the way the market has changed. "In 1985, people just bought our wood. It was all by phone. People would ask, 'Can I get it every month for a year?' That was it."

Now, he says, "Our customers want to visit one of our logging operations or one of our nurseries. They want to see our reforestation sites. They even bring their children. They ask about our labor practices...."

MacBlo is working toward certification by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the Canadian Standards Association, and the International Standards Organization.

Western Forest Products Ltd., the oldest timber firm in British Columbia, is seeking FSC certification - one of the first firms in western Canada to apply. Their chief forester, Bill Dumont, says certification "is a marketing issue." Western's customers, such as large chain stores, "have been hammered by Greenpeace" and are looking for certified products, he adds.

"It's largely in the last two years that these certification regimes have been developed enough to be really useful," says Larry Pederson, chief forester for the province of British Columbia.

One challenge: It is unclear whether the FSC will certify firms that log old-growth forests. Some Canadians say that their country is so undeveloped that they have no choice but to harvest old growth; they simply don't have enough second-generation forests. They find it ironic that European firms, who couldn't harvest old growth if they wanted to, because there is none left, could end up with an edge in certification.

If FSC certification becomes the de facto market standard and Canadian firms are excluded from it, "this could develop into a restraint-of-trade issue," Mr. Pederson says.

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