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Tom Saxhaug: It’s time to level the playing field

Millions of Americans nationwide directly or indirectly depend on the forest products industry to support their livelihoods. In rural areas in particular, timber serves as the backbone of the community, providing jobs and revenues for families, business, and much needed services. These areas are best served by policies that promote the use of sustainable timber, not restrict it.

One way businesses ensure sustainability is to certify their land or products to the standards of programs such as the American Tree Farm System (ATFS), Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). These certification systems all promote sound land management and keep forests economically and ecologically viable for the near and long-term future. They do this by mandating that property owners implement sound practices that promote conservation.

It is not just foresters and tree farmers who express interest in certification. Many large retailers also want to source from supply chains that ensure sustainability. 3M, which employs 15,000 workers in Minnesota, sells products that are SFI chain of custody certified. As a result, the company ensures that consumers purchase products that contain materials responsibly procured from our land.

It is unfortunate that some policies favored by many cities across the U.S. fail to acknowledge ATFS and SFI timber as sustainable. Specifically, a majority of American wood that has been recognized by certification programs often finds it difficult to enter “LEED” projects, which number in the thousands nationwide. While LEED provides sustainable sourcing credits to wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), it fails to do so for lumber recognized by ATFS and SFI. Combined, ATFS and SFI forestland outnumbers FSC property by tens of millions of acres in the U.S., but businesses that utilize ATFS and SFI timber instead of FSC find themselves blocked from participating in LEED projects and unable to get building contracts.

This has the effect of limiting commerce in building markets and depriving businesses of new customers. With fewer markets to sell in, businesses see their revenues and employment levels stagnate or fall.

Furthermore, misguided pressure against private retailers from non-governmental organizations can negatively impact forest products markets. One group recently protested 3M in Minneapolis because they do not certify their products to their preferred standard. Businesses caught in the middle of these debates may decide not to take sides and withdraw from selling certified products altogether, which harms producers and consumers. Businesses cannot get their products to consumers if retailers will not stock them on store shelves.

Here in Minnesota, the timber industry has declined by one-third in the last few years, straining families and businesses across the state. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources already recognizes FSC and SFI as equally contributing to sustainability, as do many private sector enterprises; however, our businesses must have fair access to markets in all 49 other states.

We can promote this fairer marketplace by encouraging competition among forest certification programs, not exclusion. Such a step will allow more domestic wood into American construction and building projects increase the consumption of U.S. forest products overall and therefore lead to more jobs in Minnesota and throughout the country.

Tom Saxhaug is a DFL state senator from Grand Rapids representing District 5, which includes the Bemidji area.