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Sherry Enzler: Expand certification in the timber industry

Minnesota is known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but our woodlands dwarf our lakes. We have 16.7 million acres of forests — occupying a third of the state’s land mass. And we are home to a robust forest industry. This industry, which for over a century has been vital to our states economy, provides living wage jobs to thousands of Minnesotans who annually collect over $1.6 billion in wages.

Obviously, this is a critical industry to our state and a significant contributor to our economy. Public policies should promote smart growth including the long-term sustainability of our important forest resource.

A key component of long-term forest health is forest certification. Forest owners and tree farmers know that their livelihood depends on the responsible management and sustainability of forests and the land and water that sustain them. That is why forest certification programs have been embraced — to ensure that forests remain productive and diverse and to protect our soil, water and wildlife.

While there are more than 50 worldwide certification standards which proclaim to advance sustainable forest management, here in Minnesota, the majority of our forestlands are certified by one of three major standards: the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), the American Tree Farm System (ATFS) and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). These groups formally recognize (“certify”) a landowner or business when they implement sound land and water management practices. Minnesota, through its Forest Stewardship Council, was an early adopter of sustainable forest management practices. In Minnesota the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources dual-certifies all state lands using both the SFI and the FSC certifications. These three programs are the most prevalent programs in the United States. Although these programs have evolved from different sources and have various points of emphasis whether habitat protection or economic viability, they all share a common focus — promoting sustainability and are comparable certification programs.

For purposes of domestic timber production, 90 percent of FSC-certified forests are outside the United States. Buying local is a key element of sustainability and whether forest products are certified by SFI, FSC or ATFS, it is important that when possible them come from a forest close to home. We need the jobs in northern Minnesota where the timber industry has been hard hit.

A growing number of diverse organizations have called for equal treatment of certified timber. The Society of American Foresters, the Mother Nature Network and the American Consumer Council all oppose policies that tilt the playing field in favor of FSC. As the National Association of State Foresters stated in a 2008 resolution, “Proponents of individual certification programs often promote their option as the best or only option. This has little to do with quality and everything to do with marketing and selling their program. No certification program can credibly claim to be ‘best,’ and no certification program that promotes itself as the only certification option can maintain credibility. Forest ecosystems are complex and a simplistic ‘one size fits all’ approach to certification cannot address all sustainability needs.”

The challenge for Minnesota’s forest industry is that only one of these certification programs is acceptable as the “green” standard by many cities and states that adhere to the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) “LEED” building guidelines. The USGBC, a nonprofit private organization, only allows timber receiving FSC certification to receive its LEED sourcing credit for sustainable wood. This gives FSC wood easier access to the thousands of national LEED projects ranging from schools to office buildings to other building complexes.

By not awarding certified wood credits to timber recognized by SFI and ATFS, the USGBC excludes lumber from large amounts of Minnesota’s certified forestlands, and a majority of the certified forests in the rest of the country.

Competition is good for any market, and there is no reason we cannot accommodate multiple — equivalent forestry certification programs as an integral component of building codes aimed at promoting sustainability.

Nearly five million acres of Minnesota state forests and wildlife management areas are now certified by both FSC and SFI, showing that multiple certifications can co-exist while delivering environmentally friendly and sustainable forest products. ATFS, SFI and FSC all improve land and water management practices, as testified to by foresters, academics and conservationists.

The USGBC should recognize this fact and expand LEED’s criteria for sustainable timber to include more than one certification program. Such a step better promotes the organization’s admirable goals of minimizing our environmental footprint while promoting smart economic growth and allows for more locally sourced forest products, a key component of sustainability.

SHERRY ENZLER, a Grand Rapids native, is a Research Fellow and Adjunct Professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Forest Resources. She is also the former Director of the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance.