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Does U.S. lumber need labeling?

Certifiers of responsible practices aim to curb illegal logging. But enforcement hikes prices for consumers.

By G. Jeffrey MacDonaldCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 28, 2008

Certified: A log tagged by the Forest Stewardship Council is destined for a sawmill in Washougal, Wash. Some say the labels are an unnecessary expense for US foresters.

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Consumers shopping for paper, lumber, and other forest products are increasingly finding items labeled to vouch for the responsible practices that went into bringing these goods to market.

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These special seals tell shoppers that their new pine flooring or the book in their hands came, for example, from forests where animals thrive and cut trees are replaced by well-chosen saplings. The most common labels say either FSC, for the nonprofit Forest Stewardship Council, of SFI, for the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, a nonprofit that became independent from the forest products industry in 2007.

Certification is catching on, especially overseas as markets grow for certified products. The amount of forest land certified by FSC grew by 47 percent over the past two years to more than 206 million acres worldwide. Now about 10 percent of the world's pulp supply is FSC-certified, according to Liza Murphy, an FSC managing director in Bonn, Germany.

Retailers in the United States, meanwhile, are positioning themselves to sell more certified products. Lowe's, for instance, derives almost 70 percent of its wood products from certified sources, up from about 60 percent five years ago. In May, the Northeast Lumber Retailers Association (NLRA) launched a new program to help its 1,300 members get credentialed to sell certified products.

Activists welcome the trend. They say annual audits required for certification discourage problem practices that range from decimating caribou nurseries to speeding logging trucks through small towns late at night. Certification also aims to reduce illegal logging, a practice uncommon in the US but a scourge in Indonesia and other developing nations where trees routinely fall without authorization.

"Some of humanity's worst vices are associated with illegal logging," says Scott Paul, director of the Greenpeace USA Forest Campaign. "It's closely associated with government corruption, slavery, … the drug trade, the arms trade. In short, it's a very quick and easy way to turn a profit in extremely remote areas far away from law enforcement."

But many American foresters and their commercial clients say certification doesn't make sense for forests in the US. One reason: Private property laws and environmental regulations mean most US foresters already meet relatively high standards, according to the Mark Barford, a forester and executive director of the National Hardwood Lumber Association (NHLA), an industry group based in Memphis, Tenn.