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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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.
ed betz/AP
Lumber labeler: Almost 70 percent of wood products sold at Lowe's home improvement stores come from certified sources.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

"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."

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