Are FSC and LEED Killing American Jobs? A Look at the Evidence

FSC and LEED, with its certified wood credit, are hurting the economy, claim the governor of Maine, a U.S. Senator, and SFI. We take a look at the evidence.

This is Part 1 in our “Wood Wars” series. Next: Forests and global warming

The John Mitchell Center at the University of Southern Maine achieve LEED certification in 2005–the second building in the state to do so. A new executive order makes more buildings like this one illegal.

As you may know, the U.S. Congress tried to restrict the military’s use of LEED in its recent budget law (it’s probably not going to work, as we reported a couple weeks ago). Around the same time, the governor of Maine made it illegal for State buildings to pursue LEED certification at any level.

Both of these decisions stemmed from a common root: the “wood wars” between advocates of the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). An FSC victory of sorts was declared in 2010, when the LEED rating systems continued to recognize only FSC through certified wood credits (MRc7 in LEED for New Construction 2009) to the exclusion of other certification systems, but that turns out to have been just one more battle in an ongoing conflict.

Senator Roger Wicker and Maine Governor Paul LePage both attempted to make an economic argument for their choices. By promoting FSC lumber, the claim goes, the LEED rating systems harm producers of homegrown forestry products–hurting the economy and killing jobs.

Global vs. domestic certification

Exhibit A in the economic case against LEED’s preferential treatment of FSC is the fact that most forestlands certified by FSC are outside the U.S. “100% of SFI-certified forests are in North America,” said Kathy Abusow, president and CEO of SFI. “90% of FSC forests are outside the U.S. You don’t have to be a statistician to know that not recognizing SFI is a problem for domestic forests, communities, products, and jobs.”

You also don’t have to be a logician to see that Abusow’s conclusion does not follow from these facts. While it’s true that FSC certifies forests around the globe–and also that SFI currently certifies almost 30% more forestland in North America–what we really need to know is whether architects are specifying imported lumber instead of domestic lumber because of LEED’s FSC-only policy.

Corey Brinkema, president of FSC–US, argues that it’s not cost-effective to import dimensional lumber–which means that people who are specifying FSC lumber are unlikely to add to the cost premium by getting it from overseas. Furthermore, he said, “There is plenty of FSC-certified supply in the U.S. to be able to provide the necessary wood for all the green buildings in the U.S. and many other industries that are desiring responsible wood.”

When I pressed her about whether foreign dimensional lumber is really in competition with domestic dimensional lumber, Abusow simply stuck to her guns: “90% of FSC certifications are abroad, and I don’t need to go into depth to know that that’s an issue. And so I don’t.”

Getting credit for local wood

Apparently the Maine executive branch feels the same way–not least of all because SFI has been lobbying in the state, as Abusow confirmed during our call. She claims that LePage’s executive order means “wood products from Maine can definitely be used in Maine green buildings.”

Bill Beardsley, Commissioner of the Maine Department of Conservation, echoed these sentiments in a press release about the “expanded use of green building materials,” explaining that the move “means that the local community college will be able to build using the certified-wood products from the local sawmill.”

The Maine executive order effectively outlaws LEED. Click to read the whole order on the State of Maine website.

Anyone familiar with LEED, however, knows that there are credits for both locally sourced and rapidly renewable materials. You can get credit for wood products from the local sawmill regardless of whether it’s certified wood or not.

Let’s also keep in mind that LEED doesn’t require you to use any wood at all. Certified wood, local wood, rapidly renewable materials: these are all things you can get credits for if you choose to. They are not prerequisites that you must achieve in order to seek LEED certification. Buildings made of concrete, steel, and other materials achieve LEED certification without so much as an FSC-certified toothpick in them every day.

If anything, it could be argued that LEED has stimulated the wood market by incentivizing those buildings to include some wood veneer here or wood flooring there to make them eligible for any or all of these three credits.

Outlawing LEED might hurt Maine paper mills

“We have some 4.7 million acres of certified lands in Maine,” said Brinkema at FSC–US. “The state truly has a competitive advantage in providing responsibly sourced forest products to the LEED marketplace. With that executive order, they are more or less giving up that competitive advantage.”

It’s not just the lumber market that could be hurt, according to John Gunn, senior program leader at the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences. “To me it’s misguided,” said Gunn. “In Maine still, the engines of the forest economy here are the coated paper mills–the mills that make the magazine and catalogue paper. Especially in the downturn here, the FSC component of their market share has been critical.”

Given the fact that pulp wood and lumber often come from the same tree trunk, Gunn is concerned about the implications of the order: “If the government reduces demand for the FSC lumber side, that could reduce availability for the paper side,” he said. “For example, if some landowners were to drop their FSC certificates because of that, it could reduce the amount of available FSC pulpwood, which endangers pulp mills. It is a narrow view of the implications for the forest products sector.”

Does a life-cycle approach make a difference?

After we’d first reported on the military appropriations bill, it came to our attention through Chris Cheatham’s Green Building Law Update that one of the people instrumental in getting LEED restrictions added to the bill was Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi–and that LEED’s preferential treatment of FSC was apparently behind his reasoning.

“Standards should take into consideration the full life cycle of wood products, including the environmental benefits provided by our domestic reforestation programs,” said Wicker in a statement. “After completing this study, the Department of Defense should use credible standards that more accurately assess U.S. wood products.”

I’m still trying to puzzle out just what Wicker is trying to say here, but I have a feeling it has something to do with the new transparency credits that are being hashed out in the LEED 2012 draft. (Watch EBN for coverage of the third public comment draft soon!)

This photo from a group calling itself “Credible Forest Certification” has made the Internet rounds a lot. We’re not sure how credible the photo really is–especially since SFI and FSC lands often overlap–but it does express the worst fears of those who oppose a “life-cycle” approach to comparing forestry standards. The sometimes devastating impacts of frequent clear-cutting on local habitats would not show up in a standard life-cycle assessment.

As we discussed in our recent feature article on product transparency, life-cycle assessment does not do a very good job of capturing the local impacts of harvesting raw materials, like wood and minerals, which is one of the reasons we favor a combination of life-cycle assessment and third-party certifications like FSC and SFI. We’ll be keeping a sharp eye on any attempts by third-party certifiers to use life-cycle assessment as an excuse to settle for lower standards. (FSC fiercely opposes the transparency credits in the 2012 draft precisely because it fears life-cycle assessment could make SFI’s standards for forestry practices look just as good as FSC’s.)

What’s your verdict?

I’ve probably made it pretty clear where I stand on the LEED-as-job-killer line. I don’t think the arguments hold up under even the tiniest amount of scrutiny. I began my research in good faith and gave SFI a chance to make a credible argument that might justify its lobbying efforts.

I’m afraid SFI’s president telling me “I don’t need to go into depth” just doesn’t cut the mustard.

But I could have missed vital evidence. Might LEED really be a job killer? Could FSC be an accessory to this chilling crime? What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

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