Certification Policy Not Seeing the Forests from the Trees

Earlier this year, I wrote about the issue of forest certification and how government regulation of the certification market imposes certain costs to producers and consumers of wood products.  Over the past decade numerous local, state and federal government agencies have regulated this market by adhering to the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) LEED rating system, which awards credits to forest products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), but not more widely utilized programs such as the American Tree Farm System (ATFS) or the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI).  Such a policy allows certain forest products to be used in building projects, while excluding others.

Growing concerns about the effects of this preferential treatment on tree farmers and the timber industry have led numerous members of Congress and governors to call on the USGBC to revise its LEED standards.  Some states have already acted on their own to bypass the USGBC.  Governors Paul LePage of Maine and Nathan Deal of Georgia both issued executive orders mandating that state buildings incorporate forest products certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), the American Tree Farm System (ATFS) and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).  This differs from the approach of other agencies that follow the USGBC guidelines, as many buildings under their jurisdiction can only incorporate FSC-certified wood products.   

Conservationists, landowners and academics have called for a level playing field in the recognition of certification programs, which they argue will incentivize certification and increase market access for the goods produced by tree farmers and landowners.  Other environmental groups hold the FSC as the gold standard for certification, and contend that policies that recognize SFI water down environmental safeguards.  The USGBC’s fifth public comment period for proposed changes to the LEED rating system begins October 2nd and provides an opportunity for many reputable voices in the debate to be heard. 

Soon, ACI will release a study discussing these issues and what policies can lead to responsible forest management practices and produce more environmentally-friendly wood and paper products. 

A key point in this debate is that the USGBC is not a government agency.  As a nonprofit organization, its rules have no binding authority for regulators and legislators – unless they choose to follow them.  It will be interesting to see in the coming months if any further states take similar steps as the governors of Maine and Georgia.  

Steve Pociask is president of the American Consumer Institute, a 501c3 nonprofit educational and research institute.

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