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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.

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Also, unlike other countries where forests are primarily government-owned, the US has more than 10 million private landowners managing the majority of the nation's timber stock. Many of these are mom-and-pop operations that can't afford to do all the documentation required for certification, says Lee Laechelt, executive vice president of the Alabama Forest Owners Association. Small foresters pay at least 13 times more than large owners pay per acre to get certified, according to research compiled earlier this year at North Carolina State University.

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To date, fewer than 2 percent of US forest owners – mostly large landowners and international corporations – have secured either FSC or SFI certification. The littler guys, some say, may be in for a tough haul if certified wood becomes a marketplace norm. "We run the risk, if we don't produce a certified product, of being closed out of certain markets that absolutely require it," Mr. Barford says. "And that scares us."

Others worry that these labels can sometimes be misleading. Certification may not always mean much when applied to small US foresters, says Alberto Goetzl, president of Seneca Creek Associates, a natural resources consulting firm in Poolesville, Md.

"They'll have a timber sale once in a generation, maybe twice," says Mr. Goetzl, a consultant to the NHLA. "Are they going to certify just so they can sell their wood products that one time? Maybe they will. But then they sell their wood products. Do you think they're going to stay certified? Maybe not. So certification is not the be all and end all for good forest practices in the US, given our land ownership patterns."

So far, retailers say, certified wood is yet to catch fire as a must-have item in US markets. One factor is price. In New York and New England, certified lumber normally sells for about 20 percent more than comparable wood that's uncertified, according to NRLA Executive Director Rita Ferris. And even though lumber prices are down more than 15 percent this year as a result of slow housing starts, most consumers still aren't inclined to pay extra for the certified label.

"Consumers are not asking for it," Ms. Ferris says. "They ask, 'what will it cost me this way versus the certified way?' And when the answer is that the certified is 20 percent more … they say, 'You know, I'll go with the regular lumber and not the certified lumber.' " Nevertheless, global markets are raising the global profile of certified forest products. Large institutions, including the Guatemalan government, are increasingly adopting procurement policies to purchase only certified wood products. The US Green Building Council awards credits in its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program for commercial builders who make sure at least 50 percent of their wood is FSC-certified.

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