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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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Experts see pros and cons in the prospect of consumers warming to certified forest products. Recent surveys of foresters in Latin America and North America suggest the process of seeking certification "certainly makes a difference in the improvement of practices," according to Fred Cubbage, professor of forest policy at North Carolina State University and a principal researcher in the surveys. Improvements ranged from safer working conditions in Chile to better community relations in the US.

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"So far, certification hasn't excluded sellers [of uncertified wood] from participating in the markets," Dr. Cubbage says. Fear of being left out due to a lack of certification, he says, "is an overwrought concern perhaps."

Others, however, aren't convinced small US foresters will enjoy a level playing field in a marketplace that widely embraces certified products.

"Certification clearly favors large landowners," Goetzl says. "It disadvantages the family forest owner who's not going to incur the expense for certification."

For consumers eager to support small US foresters, Mr. Laechelt suggests seeking out local wood species. This is more practical for lumber shoppers than for, say, furniture buyers, since a table might consist of wood from several regions of the world. Greenpeace's Mr. Paul notes that even uncertified local wood has one strong environmental selling point: It requires fewer carbon emissions to ship than does certified wood from halfway across the globe. (He nonetheless urges buyers to seek out the FSC label).

Some argue that consumers should reward growers of American wood whether it's certified or not. That's because they say US forests are, on the whole, well-managed. In every US state, forests are growing faster than they're being harvested, Goetzl says, and more land is forested now than 20 years ago. In Laechelt's view, this track record traces to a market climate – sans certification – that keeps costs down for small foresters.

"Our system is a pretty darn good system where we let people own things and try to take care of them," says Laechelt, whose 200 acres of Alabama forest were, in most cases, formerly cleared for farmland. "And we ought to defend that, rather than move to a [system that says] 'prove that you're doing it' properly."

Certifiers meanwhile aren't giving up. FSC's Ms. Murphy urges small US foresters to follow the lead of the Swiss and get certified in groups to bring down costs. SFI encourages sawmill operators to shoulder the costs of SFI training for loggers who sell to them.

Companies that want to distribute certified product "don't have the luxury of saying 'no' to the other 90 percent of forests that are uncertified," says Kathy Abusow, president and CEO of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. "So SFI has to work on those uncertified lands to raise the bar of forestry."