The Forest for the Trees

forestAn army base isn't usually a place people associate with environmental change but at Fort Lewis logging practices are being put into place that may help make all forestry in Washington more sustainable.

Michele Zukerberg of the Northwest Natural Resources Group looked out over the fort landscape. The effects of new logging practices can be seen all around Fort Lewis. There is very little clear-cutting here. Recently harvested stumps are scattered between 100-year-old trees.

"If you don't maintain forestry as a viable economic option it will become something else - like pavement and development," Zukerberg said.

Washington State has always walked a fine line between supporting its thriving timber industry and preserving the splendor of its forests. Logging pumps millions of dollars into the state economy, and provides a quarter of the funding for public school construction. However, methods used to harvest the timber, such as clear cutting and logging of old-growth trees, are questionable from an environmental standpoint.

Currently the Washington state Department of Natural Resources is considering implementing a system that may give the timber industry and environmentalists some common ground, as well as bring standards to logging that could make forests sustainable. The process is called green certification.

Green certification a set of standards administered by an independent group, who comes and assesses the logging practices in a forest to determine if the timber is harvested responsibly.

The program began during the 1980s in South America due to concerns over the destruction of tropical rainforests, but it has gradually become popular all around the world. There are many different certification groups and all have slightly different standards, but they share a common goal of balancing environmental, social and economic concerns to meet the needs of the present without compromising the future.

The process is voluntary. A forest owner, whether a state government or small landowner, pays a certifier to come in and assess their land. The assessment considers logging practices, labor conditions and wildlife habitat, as well as many other standards in evaluating the land. If the forest makes the grade all harvested timber from that forest is labeled green certified in stores.

Stores like Home Depot are carrying more and more green wood. It functions like an organic label on food. It gives customers the ability to make sure the wood they buy was logged in the most responsible way possible.

The DNR is considering implementing green certification on state forests. There are over 80 different groups around the world who do this type of certification, but the two being considered by the state are the Forest Stewardship Council and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. The two systems are very different. Before the DNR can make a choice they must determine which system, if any, would best help create sustainability in state logging.

"Green certification is not a goal," communications director for the DNR, Todd Myers said. "Green certification is a tool to reach these goals."

Prior to the election of Doug Sutherland, the new commissioner of public lands, the FSC system received the most serious state attention. Since he took office, focus has shifted to SFI.

SFI began as an effort within the timber industry to improve logging practices. It has since become independent, but still retains strong ties to the timber industry. One third of its 15-member board comes from within the business.

As a result this is the plan most industry officials would prefer to see adopted. Two hundred companies across America already perform SFI certification. Approximately 90 percent of the United States' industrial timberlands are SFI certified. But SFI regulations aren't as strict as those used by other certifiers.

Environmental groups are concerned that it places too much emphasis on the economic end and placing the environment second, while the social aspects of logging receive the least amount of priority.

On the other side of the coin there is FSC, which is viewed as the more environmentally friendly of the two. It is supported by many Northwest environmental groups, including the Washington Environmental Council.

FSC uses a ten-point plan that accounts for the environmental impact of logging, the conservation value of the forests and labor practices, such as whether workers are allowed to unionize.

SFI, in contrast, doesn't consider labor practices at all. In other respects the two programs are relatively similar. It comes down to a matter of differences in the stringency of standards.

The success of certification can be seen already throughout the state. One place using it is Fort Lewis, a military base south of Tacoma. Installation Forester Gary McCausland said they grow 30 million board feet of timber per year at the fort.

They harvest 10 million. McCausland said Fort Lewis generates $4.1 million from those timber sales, and returns $1 million back to the state economy. Forty percent of that money goes to school construction.

Fort Lewis operates under the supervision of the FSC. McCausland chose FSC because of its social considerations and because it is recognized by the environmental community.

Stores like Home Depot are carrying more and more green wood. It functions like an organic label on food. It gives customers the ability to make sure the wood they buy was logged in the most responsible way possible.

"Certification is a validation process," said McCausland. He said he feels that FSC provides the most validation to consumers.

Certification is appealing in theory but has some drawbacks in practice.

One of these is the cost. Fort Lewis had to pay $30,000 to become FSC certified. These prices are feasible for military bases and timber companies but can be a strain on small, private landowners.

The cost of every site varies and is negotiable, but it always ranges from a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars. Some landowners are forming groups to offset the cost, but if one of them falls below standard, they all lose certification.

Also, compliance with these standards is voluntary. The FSC and SFI are private organizations. No legal action can be brought against a forest that falls below standards; the only threat is loss of certification.

Additional concerns arise about whether or not certification standards, which sound good on paper, have any practical effect on making forests sustainable.

"We need to look at this as a landscape," University of Washington professor Kristiina Vogt said. "We need to get the science back into the project."

Vogt compared the standards of certification to a "cookbook," putting a bunch of good ideas together and hoping they have some effect. The concepts are great, she said, but we aren't thinking about the process.

"The process needs to be made open," Vogt said, "or it'll be just another fad that happened and disappeared."

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