Giving trees the green stamp

FSC may be the next ‘organic certification’


Ian Smith, a forester at Evergreen Eco Forestry, stands in front of 200 acres of sustainably harvested wood at the River Farm in Van Zandt.


The growth of all things green has become all the rage, and now the greenest things of all — trees — are getting greener.

FSC-certification is slowly becoming the “organic certification” of wood, by stamping lumber with a guarantee it has been sustainably harvested.

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) was developed in the early ‘90s by a broad group of international timber stakeholders concerned with encouraging sustainable, environmentally and socially responsible forest management.

Since then, the FSC has developed standards and criteria to certify forestry entities in a chain-of-custody program, from tree farms to mills to manufacturers to retailers.

Similar to the United States Green Building Council, which is responsible for LEED certification standards, the FSC is a private, nonprofit member-driven organization.

Since its inception, more than 220 million acres worldwide have received FSC certification in more than 70 countries, and several thousand products are made using FSC-certified wood.

Preventing habitat and ecosystem degradation is one of the FSC’s main objectives, said Ian Hanna, director of the Northwest Certified Forestry Program at Port Townsend-based Northwest Natural Resources Group.

Simply put, habitat degradation results from growing trees in systematic ways for short periods of time, he said.

“When that’s done on a large scale, it has large impacts on forest ecosystems,” he said. In the Pacific Northwest, the average forest rotation time has decreased in the last two decades by about 20 years, he said.

Hanna’s Certified Forestry Program works to encourage the development of FSC-certified product markets in the Pacific Northwest, an effort that has taken a while to catch fire.

Demand for FSC-certified products in the Northwest has been rickety. But, demand has slowly increased since Washington state, Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham, among other state jurisdictions, have passed resolutions requiring LEED certification for new government-funded construction. This is because using FSC-certified woods adds credits to LEED projects.

Environmentally conscious consumers are also slowly but surely increasing the demand for FSC wood, despite its higher cost.

However, the overall production of FSC products remains a minute portion of U.S. timber sales at about 1 percent or 2 percent of the total U.S. lumber market. The FSC’s goal is to capture about 25 percent of that market by 2015, he said. He compared the prevalence, or lack thereof, of FSC-certified products to the size of the U.S. organic food market in the early ‘90s.

So far, the cost to get certified coupled with a fluctuating demand seems to be a barrier for many businesses, and Hanna said those that do get certified need to be savvy about it. For example, a lumberyard that spends about $2,000 a year to renew their certification probably needs about an extra $100,000 in sales to support it.

“For someone to get FSC certified and not consider it a business strategy would be folly,” he said. “You need to have markets in place, and you need to understand the supply channels, green building and government procurement processes.”

In Whatcom County and the Puget Sound, a handful of local and regional businesses and organizations are FSC certified. The following represent their links in the FSC-certification chain of custody.


The forest — Evergreen Eco Forestry LLC at the River Farm in Van Zandt

Evergreen Eco Forestry is owned by the Evergreen Land Trust, which owns several cooperative properties in the state of Washington, including the 85-acre River Farm Homestead.

Adjacent to the River Farm community sits a 200-acre temperate Northwest forest consisting of Douglas fir, cedar, western hemlock, alder and maple trees, used by Evergreen Eco Forestry for sustainable harvesting since the early ‘90s.

While the full definition of a sustainably harvested forest is complex, it means, essentially, that wood is harvested in a way that protects the forest’s ecosystem as well as providing wood products in perpetuity, said River Farm forester Ian Smith.

As opposed to traditional forestry’s use of clear cuts as frequent as every 40 years, the River Farm selectively harvests small amounts of trees every 20 or so years while maintaining the ecological integrity of the forest over a long period of time.

In practice, this means there is always a canopy over the forest, and tree harvesting is done with regard to a 15- to 20-foot spacing rule. Selected trees tend to be “co-dominant,” meaning they are below the taller stand of trees and next to a tree providing a similar stand.

The operation has been profitable, Smith said, especially because the older trees produce better quality lumber and because the farm has tried to maximize its value with quality finishes. During its last harvest, the farm sold lumber packages to housing developments and boardwalks. Some of the millwork is done on the farm, some at contracted mills.

The forest received FSC certification in 2000 after a several-month process. Certifiers evaluated the operation with a complex set of Pacific Coast Region-specific standards, including the long-term forest management plan and adherence to a minimum set of requirements aimed at maintaining the forest’s ecosystem.

Every year since, the trust must renew its certification, but Smith said the cost of certification is small compared to the total costs of unsustainable forestry.

“The drive to do sustainable forestry is attempting to include all the costs, not just monetary,” he said. “That includes the cost to water quality, ecosystems and air quality.”


The mill — Fritch Mill, Snohomish

Fritch Mill, a small sawmill with 25 employees in the town of Snohomish, received its FSC certification just over six years ago and has milled wood for Evergreen Eco Forestry.

FSC certifiers mainly check to make sure the mill keeps FSC-certified logs stored and tracked separately from other logs, owner Eric Fritch said. There is no difference in the milling process for FSC-certified wood.

Fritch originally thought FSC lumber would sweep the market, but the trend hasn’t taken hold as quickly as he thought.

“Demand has not grown as I thought it would,” he said.

While he does get requests for FSC wood for custom projects, the major challenge has been finding distributors to stock the wood regularly, which means inventory sits around for a long time.

“A lot of people are saying ‘we would inventory it if there was demand,’ but on the other hand, there would be more demand if you’d inventory it,” he said.

Lately, he has been getting more interest on the distribution side, but he still is unsure if the annual $3,000 cost for certification covers the benefits. That’s why he is planning to enroll in a new FSC program in the next six months that would allow him to take in FSC wood to mill that would earn credits for him to sell wood that is uncertified as certified, similar to the green power credit system. The program will offset the problem of not being able to move the certified wood regularly, he said.


The distributor — Builders Alliance, Bellingham

At Builders Alliance, FSC lumber accounts for only about 5 percent of its sales.

Much of those sales go to contractors using FSC-certified wood to get LEED credits for state and local government construction projects, which is why Builders Alliance is an FSC-certified wholesaler/retailer, said operations leader Mike Werner. In order for contractors to use FSC wood for government-funded LEED projects, they must purchase it from a certified distributor.

The certification process for retailers is fairly simple. Similar to the mill process, certifiers make sure the lumber is received from mills and stored and tracked separately from other lumber as well as that the retailer has accurate record-keeping systems.

Builders Alliance first received certification in 2001, but dropped it two years later because of lack of supply and demand. Just this year the business became recertified because of an increase in both those arenas.

While Werner said the FSC wood is still a niche market, he thinks it is growing, and has noticed more demand from commercial customers whose clients want to build green.

Werner thinks this time around, Builders Alliance will definitely get a return on its investment in the program.


The buyer — A-1 Builders, Bellingham

Rick Dubrow uses FSC-certified wood, purchased from Builders Alliance, for every two-by-four and two-by-six used in his company’s construction business as general policy.

While the wood does cost more, Dubrow uses an advanced framing technique that requires less lumber, so the cost washes out in the end, he said.

For Dubrow, using FSC-certified wood is a way to build with a conscience, and he hopes to see demand for it grow.

“It all comes down to environmentalism,” he said. “I think we’re going to see all environmental products and services get stronger and stronger because of the state of the world. It will be proportional to global warming and pollution. That’s what’s going to drive it.”

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