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Sierra Magazine
Hearth and Home: How Green is My Forest?

Certifiers vouch for good wood

by Seth Zuckerman

From paper to furniture and shelter, even the most devoted environmentalist uses some wood. But not all timber is created equal: some is harvested with care and respect for the land, while some is the product of vast clearcuts and deforestation. Until recently, there was no dependable way for the customer to tell the difference.

To take the guesswork out of purchasing wood, conservationists and conscientious landowners have devised certification programs that vouch for green forestry. "Certification is a way to use the market to provide positive incentives for long-term, ecological forest management," says Richard Donovan, executive director of the Rainforest Alliance's SmartWood project, which began certifying forestland in 1989.

For approval, landowners must devise explicit management plans for maintaining ecological balance, and log only within the limits of the forest's ability to grow back. Annual inspections and audits of timber shipments ensure that firms honor these guidelines; specific criteria vary from site to site. For instance, the Menominee tribe's 234,000-acre forest in Wisconsin was certified despite the use of herbicides because the tribe agreed to reduce its reliance on the chemicals. SmartWood's certifiers were impressed that the tribe had sustained a working forest for 150 years. "Those tracts are being managed for all the values we're interested in-wildlife, water quality, and sustainable yield," says ex-logger Walter Smith, SmartWood's western regional director.

Certified lumber comes in a variety of species-western woods such as redwood, Douglas fir, and madrone; eastern hardwoods such as black cherry and red oak; and even tropicals such as rosewood and purpleheart. Recently, plywood and veneers have been certified, making it easier to build furniture entirely of good wood. SmartWood has also begun certifying a line called "Rediscovered Wood," including used lumber and wood from aging orchards.

There's even an accreditation program to ensure that certifiers are on the up and up. Since its founding in 1993 by indigenous groups, timber companies, and environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, The Forest Stewardship Council has authorized three European groups, and two in the United States-SmartWood and Scientific Certification Systems (SCS)-to dispense the FSC logo, a check mark blending into a tree. High-profile certified-wood users include Martin and Gibson (guitars), Char-Broil (grills), and Smith & Hawken (outdoor furniture).

Because of demand from manufacturers and retailers, more and more timber companies are bringing more land under certification, including the million-acre-tract Seven Islands Land Company in Maine, 1.2 million acres of Pennsylvania state forest, and two 200,000-acre tracts in Brazil. The accredited agencies currently do not certify U.S. federal land. As of early 1998, FSC agents had put their seal on 15.5 million acres worldwide-an area the size of West Virginia. Leading countries include Sweden, with 6 million certified acres, and the United States and Poland, with nearly 4 million each.

Wood sellers say the market will support at most a small price premium for certified lumber or finished products. So why bother? Producers and dealers use their green credentials to distinguish themselves from the competition, hoping to increase their share of the market. For landowners, the environmental stamp of approval reassures neighbors, workers, and the public that they are practicing good forestry.

For consumers, the purpose of certification is clear. With a purchase of certified wood, says Debbie Hammel of SCS, "you are communicating that you would like to buy forest products not just from a forest where they plant two trees for every one they cut down, but where they are protecting habitat and contributing to communities that depend on that forest."

Northern California writer Seth Zuckerman is Ecotrust's circuit rider, chronicling stories from the Pacific Coast temperate rainforest.

For a list of certified wood dealers, visit

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact for more information.

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