High Crime on the High Line: Why Is NYC's Highest-Profile Park Using Amazon Wood?

If a tree falls in the Amazon, will anyone in New York City hear it?

What about if hundreds, perhaps thousands, of trees fall, and are then exported to Gotham's highest-profile park?

That question has kept me up for many nights after I strolled along the High Line, located in New York's infamous meat packing district, on opening day.

First, I was wowed by the innovative recovery of urban space, by the tastefully rusted bones of an old elevated railroad trestle sprouting native grasses and pedestrian throughways.

Then my stomach flipped. It was the furniture. More specifically, the wood. I didn't see the growth rings that usually mark wood logged from temperate forests, which meant that this wood likely came from under the perpetually moist canopy of a rain forest.

Turns out, Friends of the High Line, the group that masterminded the park, built all the chaise lounges, benches, bleacher seating and decking with tropical hardwood ripped from the jungles of the Amazon.

Friends' wood of choice, ipê, grows throughout the Amazon at an average of 1 to 2 trees per acre; well-funded loggers bulldoze a virtual ant farm of roads to chase down these scattered trees.

In the Amazon, the consumption of export -- quality wood, including ipê, is the primary factor leading to deforestation -- mostly because logging roads open up previously inaccessible areas of forest to land speculators, cattle ranchers and farmers.

To make matters worse, according to the Brazilian government, 80 percent of logging in the Amazon is done illegally. And the heavily armed criminal cartels doing this logging also have a nasty record of stealing land from indigenous people and killing those who get in their way. Illegal loggers are even known to employ slave laborers, as reported in an exposé by investigative reporters from Knight-Ridder.

Unfortunately, when it comes to materials used in New York City's public infrastructure, Friends' preferences are far from unique. Tim Keating, executive director of Rainforest Relief, an environmental watchdog group, said that during the 1960s, the city's Department of Parks and Recreation began using tropical woods for renovations to 10-plus miles of coastal boardwalks.

By the mid-80s, multiple city agencies were, in his words, "on tropical forest feeding frenzy." They imported rain forest wood not just for all the boardwalks, but also for the promenade of the Brooklyn Bridge and tens of thousands of park benches, subway track ties, and pilings along the Staten Island Ferry terminals (each piling is a single tree from old-growth Guyanese rain forest).

While Keating boasts that his group has stopped more tropical wood imports to North America than any other environmental organization, he's found New York City to be an especially tough nut to crack.

Still, there have been some successes, most of them quite recent.

In 2007, the Department of Parks and Recreation finally vowed to spare "approximately 390 square miles of rainf orest every 20 years" by using concrete and recycled plastic in place of tropical hardwood for city boardwalks. They claim that these materials "may last up to five times longer than traditional wooden boardwalks, with little or no maintenance, saving the city time and money in the long run."

This year, the Department of Transportation ordered five pilings composed of recycled plastic lumber to test in the fenders of the Staten Island Ferry. As well, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has acknowledged that "it is possible, as some have alleged" -- the "some" being Rainforest Relief -- "that New York City is one of the leading consumers of tropical hardwoods in the nation." Even if Bloomberg is short on solutions, at least he's addressing the problem, which is more than can be said for Friends of the High Line.

How could Friends have done this? It had culled together an innovative design team. It had garnered millions of dollars from liberal donors and enlisted the likes of David Bowie and Diane von Furstenberg for well-publicized advocacy. Was it too much to expect that, as Friends dreamed an abandoned railroad trestle into 3 acres of urban park, it wouldn't devour critical habitat 3,000 miles away? It seems entirely counter to the whole spirit of the project, ostensibly geared toward reclamation.

FSC to the Rescue?

Friends of the High Line want to assure us that its Amazon wood was a fine, even admirable, choice. This from its Web site: "The ipê wood used on the High Line was ... taken from a managed forest certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, which is recognized for creating and enforcing the world's strongest standards for forest management."

Well, that sounds reasonable enough at first glance. And certainly, well-intentioned idealists started the FSC in 1993, hoping to, as FSC International Communications Manager Nina Haase said, "use market forces to promote socially beneficial, environmentally appropriate and economically viable forest management."

FSC founders had created guidelines that call for logging companies to "prohibit conversion of forests," "respect human rights," "follow all applicable laws" and manage "areas that need special protection," including the "habitat of endangered animals or plants."

To fulfill these criteria, FSC founders designed a system whereby they would accredit an outside network of auditors. In turn, these auditors, or certifiers, are supposed to scrutinize logging operations and wood-trading companies, ensure that they adhere to FSC guidelines, and then stamp them and their products with the FSC logo, a check-marked tree.

But, upon closer inspection, the FSC's promise of sustainability gets awfully shaky. To begin with, the FSC certifies industrial logging operations in ancient, primary forests around the world, including the tropics.

Needless to say, these operations dig deeper into forests where we have yet to catalog, let alone evaluate the long-term prospects of, countless species.

Citing a study reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, Simon Counsell stated, "Research in the Amazon has shown that, over a period of years, commercial logging greatly increases the overall propensity of the forest to dry out, burn and disappear. This happens regardless of whether the logged areas are certified or not."

Counsell, a founding member of the FSC, has long since turned into one of the organization's sharpest critics. He finds it unconscionable that, despite the well-documented devastation of logging in the Amazon the FSC still promises consumers that their wood products from the region are "sustainable."

For this reason, as well as the FSC's certification scheme, in which auditors are paid directly by the companies they are supposed to monitor, Counsell has accused the FSC of having morphed into the "Enron of forestry."

His Web site, FSC-Watch.org, chronicles a litany of troubling news from FSC operations around the world, including an occupation occurring right now in Brazil: A nonviolent, popular movement of indigenous people and campesinos are confronting an FSC-certified plantation, which they refer to as "green desert" that "destroys local people's livelihoods and environments."

Into the always-volatile cauldron of South American deforestation comes more bad news for FSC supporters. On July 12, 2009, the Brazilian government announced that federal police had broken up a timber-laundering ring in the Amazon involving 3,000 "eco-certified" companies that had been receiving illegal wood for years. FSC-certified companies are among the implicated.

Unfortunately, this kind of story is nothing new.

In 2007, Guyana President Bharrat Jagdeo accused an FSC-certified logging operation, the Singapore-based Asia Pulp and Paper Co. Ltd., of "fraud," perpetrated over the course of numerous years. According to The Wall Street Journal, it wasn't until after reporters' inquiries to the FSC that the FSC finally rescinded approval of APP products.

Far too often it's not certifiers but law-enforcement officers and media who expose FSC-certified companies' involvement in illegal logging, land theft, corruption and forced labor. This, despite the higher costs of FSC-certified wood, which is supposed to fund effective on-the-ground monitoring.

According to a 159-page report, "Trading in Credibility," published by the Rainforest Foundation, ineffective monitoring is only one of the FSC's flaws. Based on collected testimonies of representatives from indigenous groups, universities and social and environmental organizations in 13 countries, Rainforest Foundation concluded that human rights and environmental violations associated with FSC-certified logging operations are "not just isolated 'incidents,' but ... symptoms of structural problems within the FSC."

Because these "structural problems" seem to keep surfacing, Friends of the Earth U.K., a longtime FSC cheerleader, stated in 2008 that it "cannot support a scheme that fails to guarantee high environmental and social standards" and, consequently, "can no longer recommend the FSC standard."

That same year, World Rainforests Movement called for a boycott of FSC products, and Ecological Internet launched a campaign to demand that FSC stop certifying wood from old-growth forests.

"It has become evident to environmentalists in the know that FSC has become an obstacle to ending ancient-forest destruction, addressing climate change and biodiversity loss," said EI founder Glen Berry.

The FSC certifies 12,700 production chains in 81 countries. Despite their monumental growth, the tropics are still being decimated. The U.N. Environment Program says we're losing an area of rain forest the size of a football field every second, which calculates to an area the size of Manhattan every three hours.

Nina Haase, FSC's international spokeswoman, said "demand for forest products will continue and only accelerate," and this trajectory "will inevitably result in parts of natural forests being used for production purposes." This, she argued, is why the FSC supports logging in ancient rain forests -- it's going to happen anyway, and if the FSC didn't certify it, some other entity with lesser standards would.

But the government of Norway has thrown down a gauntlet. Officials there are challenging not only Haase's bleak assessment, but also the entire program that she promotes.

In 2007, Norway's Directorate of Public Construction and Property (Statsbygg) decided that it couldn't rely on any certification system, including the FSC, and banned the use of all tropical timber in public buildings.

"The government wants to stop all trade with unsustainably or illegally logged tropical forest products," it stated. "Today, there is no international or national certification that can guarantee in a reliable manner that imported wood is legally and sustainably logged."

Quite simply, it is arguing that a greater quantity of FSC-certified wood will do nothing to protect the world's dwindling rain forests or battle climate change. Instead, it is saying, we need to lessen our consumption of all tropical hardwoods.

Milk Jugs and the Army Corps

The shift from tropical hardwoods to alternative materials has been staggered at best here in the U.S., especially when compared to Norway's decisive action. Still, a growing number of sites bear testament to officials and designers with the creativity and political will to build public infrastructure in accordance with ecological imperatives.

Elected officials in Long Beach, Calif., replaced their ipê boardwalk with gorgeous clay pavers. The Asbury Park, N.J., City Council  initially granted approval to renovate its boardwalk with ipê. Then, after a two block-section had been completed, and an election year altered the lineup of council members, it reversed course, banned the use of tropical hardwoods for municipal projects and completed the renovation with yellow pine, a wood traditionally used on U.S. boardwalks until the mid-20th century.

Unlike rain forests, human ingenuity is in no danger of depletion, as the growing inventory of materials that can be substituted for tropical hardwood illustrates. 

Tim Keating, executive director of Rainforest Relief, listed some of his favorites: domestic hardwoods, including ash, red oak or maple, that are either thermally modified or naturally treated to boost strength and durability; black locust, a tree still viewed as an invasive species along the Eastern seaboard; salvaged tropical hardwoods, including the tens of thousands of trees recently found beneath the surface of the Panama Canal. Ultimately, though, Keating's most preferred alternative to tropical hardwood is recycled plastic lumber.

"We construct boardwalks, piers and docks with wood that rots in 10 to 30 years," he said. "But we make milk jugs -- which go from the dairy farm to the trash in four weeks -- out of high-density polyethylene, one of the most durable materials ever invented."

Several years before the Forest Stewardship Council formed, Tom Nosker had been pacing the labs of Rutgers University, wondering just how to best use all those discarded milk jugs -- as well as the soda, detergent and shampoo bottles that were typically used once and thrown away.

"New Jersey had a landfill crisis in the 1980s," Nosker said. "The cost to get rid of waste went up to 10 cents a pound or more."

He also noted that no matter what price municipalities were willing to pay, they never really got rid of much of their waste. Their post-consumer plastics just lay underground, like dirty secrets, in landfills that grew larger with each passing year. An unearthed bottle of, say, Tide detergent, would still be Day-Glo bright and structurally sound decades after its disposal. Couldn't the resiliency of plastic be made to work for, rather than against, society?

That question became Nosker's mandate. "There had to be a better way," he said.

In 1989, he implemented the U.S.'s first curbside collection of plastic bottles in Highland Park, N.J., a neighborhood adjoining Rutgers. As these bottles began to accumulate in the parking lot outside the engineering department, he conducted experiments geared toward breathing a second life into them.

Nosker chipped up the bottles, heated them and ran them through an extruder to create dimensional boards and I-beams. Eventually, he boosted the structural integrity of these forms by adding a small percentage of material sourced from discarded car bumpers, post-industrial Styrofoam or Plexiglas.

When the proverbial smoke cleared, Nosker had invented recycled plastic lumber. Actually, he'd invented several varieties of recycled plastic lumber, all of them capable of lasting for over 100 years, after which they could be melted down, reshaped and used again.

Unlike the wood-plastic composite lumbers that have hit the market in the last decade, including offerings by Trex and TimberTech, Nosker's inventions contain only plastics or fiberglass, which makes them impervious to moisture and fully resistant to warping, rotting and splintering.

This kind of resilience, coupled with low-to-no-maintenance costs, intrigued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. At Fort Bragg, N.C., the Corps began to construct bridges composed entirely of Nosker's recycled plastic lumber. These bridges proved less expensive to build than their wooden, concrete or steel counterparts, and withstood the weight of 71-ton M1 Abrams tanks.

Darryl Butler, a civil engineer with the Fort Bragg Directorate of Public Works, said the recycled-plastic bridges provide "a cost-effective way to access training areas on the installation without having to expend large sums of money to repair these structures." He added that this "cutting-edge of technology ... is definitely something that Fort Bragg and the Army will benefit from immensely."

"The Army is biting on recycled plastics pretty hard," Nosker said. In fact, according to him, it's lining up additional projects with the material, including a railroad bridge at Fort Eustis, Va. And the buzz about the bridges at Fort Bragg has gotten so loud that their official unveiling, on Sept 18, was initially going to be open to the public, but is now closed. "Too much interested brass," Nosker said. "So it's become a national-security risk. I'm having trouble even getting some of my colleagues in."

The Army isn't the only entity using Nosker's recycled-plastic lumber. The Chicago Transit Authority has installed 120,000 light-rail track ties made of his material, and the New Orleans Port Authority has used a similar product for docks.

Still, it seems surprising that more civilian agencies aren't utilizing this material, despite its emergence on the market years ago. I asked Nosker for his thoughts on the matter.

"Don't you know people up in their years who aren't ready to turn on a computer or operate the Internet?" he said. "Either towns are going to start building with recycled-plastic lumber now, or at some point in the future. The longer they wait, the more expensive for their budgets. They'll be switching out their wooden structures in 10 20 years. But recycled-plastic lumber? I'll be long gone before it needs replacing."

According to Keating, many of the officials and architects with whom he has dealt resist-recycled plastic lumber because of aesthetics. Or the lack thereof. Recycled-plastic lumber doesn't do a good job of looking like wood, they've said to him repeatedly. Left unsaid is that they can't yet imagine what else the material could look like.

"Large buildings were once made of granite and stone," Keating said. "Then along came structural glass-in colors. It took four decades for architects to realize their palette of options. That's where we're at right now with recycled-plastic lumber. Even green designers don't yet grasp the possibilities. They could craft any color, any shape."

The High Road

Trends can be beneficial or reckless, and New York City has started its fair share of both kinds. Keating noted one of the latter varieties: "In the '60s, Coney Island became the first boardwalk in the U.S. to be renovated with ipê. Then Atlantic City followed suit. Importers used the high profile of both sites to create a national craze for tropical-wood boardwalks, then home decks and outdoor furniture."

Just as Coney Island captured the world's imagination during the mid-20th century, so now has our collective gaze turned to the High Line.

During its grand opening, speaker Christine Quinn, head of the New York City Council, called the High Line "one of the most innovative and celebrated parks in the world." And Adrian Benepe, commissioner of the Department of Parks and Recreation, further illustrated its immense influence when he stated "this park project is the most exciting in generations."

Will this dreamy, elevated esplanade become another advertisement for tropical deforestation? Certainly designers and public officials are considering the High Line as a template for how they might repurpose blighted relics of industry, and with what materials. And those ipê benches and chaise lounges have been photographed and fawned over in countless publications.

Even now though, it's not too late for Friends of the High Line to green up its project and reverse the deleterious example it has set. It is preparing to construct sections 2 and 3 of the High Line, a renovation spanning from 20th to 34th streets. Currently, the designs call for additional ipê -- thousands of board-feet more. But there's a chance that just maybe it's going to do things differently this time around.

On Aug. 13, Chelsea Now, a weekly newspaper covering the neighborhood in which the High Line is situated, reported a leak from an anonymous source: Friends had met with representatives from Rainforest Relief and N.Y. Climate Action Group to hear about a range of building materials that could be used in lieu of wood from the Amazon.

However, when I queried Katie Lorah, spokeswoman for Friends, about its future plans, she stated, "Discussions are still ongoing regarding materials for Section 2, so we'd rather not comment on that right now, as nothing is certain yet."

As Friends consider its next steps, the prognostication for the Amazon worsens.

In the July 26 New York Times, scientists discussed the double-edged sword of our increasingly deep penetration into South American jungles. They said that even as we catalog an unprecedented number of species never before seen by Western eyes -- including the just-discovered saddleback tamarin, a small monkey with considerable claws -- our incursions are exacerbating the most widespread and rapid extinction ever in the planet's history. And that includes the mass die-off of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Consumption as usual won't work any more. We're in desperate need of designers who not only ignite our imaginations, but also respect our fragile niche in the cosmos, third planet from the sun.

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