Harper: Faulty Green Certification Costing GA Timber Growers Much Green

The following is a guest post from Senator Tyler Harper (R-Ocilla)

Some in the media and in politics fail to understand that just because a favored policy of a lawmaker or interest group is described as “green” does not mean it will yield positive environmental outcomes.  In addition to failing to stimulate conservation, these policies also may curtail economic activity in a way that hurts many businesses and timberland owners. This can certainly be the case in the forest products industry when policy intended to promote “green building” results in the diminished use of Georgia-grown wood thus reducing the incentive to tree farmers to continue planting and managing environmentally beneficial timberland.

A good example is approach of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) which has failed to heed the advice of a growing chorus of critics who take issue with its definition of “sustainable” timber.   The organization’s “LEED” building rating system, which many cities, states and federal agencies use as binding guidelines for energy-efficient building projects, only recognizes a small fraction of Georgia’s wood as being sustainably managed.

Only lumber “certified” by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is formally recognized by the LEED system.  Wood certified by the American Tree Farm System (ATFS) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), by far the majority of Georgia’s certified wood, is not.

This policy can adversely impact heavily-forested states such as Georgia, whose timber industry supports 160,000 jobs.   Millions of acres of our forests are certified to ATFS and SFI standards, while just over 30,000 acres are recognized by FSC.

This means only a small amount of Georgia’s lumber and other wood-based building products is formally recognized by LEED as sustainable resulting in its being blocked from LEED projects, many of which are funded by taxpayer dollars.  This USGBC framework ignores the benefits of all certification programs, including SFI and ATFS.

The USGBC and the politicians and bureaucrats that enforce its standards either willingly or unknowingly cater to environmental activists seeking to monopolize the use of FSC in certification markets.  These activists rarely have an answer to the question of why FSC timber should receive preferences, given that according to the FSC’s own data 90% of it is found outside the U.S., much of it in nations that enforce few environmental protections on logging.

On a positive note, more public officials, when presented with the facts, are taking steps in the right direction.  Governor Nathan Deal’s 2012 Executive Order that leveled the playing field for businesses that use materials certified to ATFS, FSC or SFI standards on state-funded projects is an example of common-sense policy for green building.

More welcome developments took place at the federal level late last year, when the General Services Administration and the Department of Defense endorsed the Green Globes rating system as a potential substitute to LEED.  Green Globes, unlike LEED, treats all certified wood equally.  If more jurisdictions used Green Globes rather than LEED, the customer base for our natural resource-based businesses would grow.

Does this mean FSC is a bad option for businesses or builders?  Not at all.

According to the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, FSC holds businesses to low standards in South America and Asia, but they impose strict requirements on American foresters.  The issue is the relative scarcity of FSC lumber in many states, including Georgia.  Those looking to improve sustainability should promote inclusive policies for wood, a sustainable and renewable building material by any objective definition.

Promoting competitive markets, in which timber certified to the standards of ATFS, FSC and SFI is allowed to enter, will increase the amount of sustainable wood in our buildings and provide economic relief to the forest products industry, not to mention encouraging Georgia farmers to continue planting trees.


  1. George Chidi says:

    OK. We went through this once before when the mad “Resolution to Support Georgia’s Forests” popped up on the Georgia Republican Party convention agenda.

    The “Sustainable Forestry Initiative” is widely considered a timber industry-driven greenwashing group — it’s astroturf. This isn’t to say that the FSC is golden — some serious environmentalists believe they look the other way in some places. But SFI is markedly worse.

    SFI — and Georgia lumber, which is what’s backing them — want in on the LEED standard. LEED said no in 2012. The lumber lobbyists went to work, trying at one point to get anti-LEED language in the party platform. It didn’t fly, in part because Dalton’s struggling rug industry, Home Depot and some other players here are actually benefiting from LEED as it is.

    I say again: you’re being played. The timber folks want a break, and they’re willing to screw the rug folks, the building materials folks like Vulcan and other firms to get it.

    Green Globes is effectively a greenwashing organization, created by a flack shop in Portland for industry to get around the more independent and more rigorous LEED standards around timber. That is the only reason it exists.

    There’s 30,000 acres of FSC-certified lumber in this state. If foresters on the other 180,000 or so want to compete for green building, then they need to maintain their forests and engage in logging that’s actually sustainable.

    Senator Harper, this is industry pandering. I wish I were surprised.

    • rightofcenter says:

      I have spent the last 30 years in the timber business. With all due respect, George you are clueless on the subject of timber sustainability. Have you even been outside the perimeter?

      • George Chidi says:

        I live outside of the perimeter, in the city with the highest proportion of parkland to incorporated acreage in the state.

        Do you have something intelligent to contribute to this discussion with your “30 years in the timber business” or are you simply going to complain about people being critical of your industry shills?

        • rightofcenter says:

          I did contribute something below to Bridget who actually had points. You, on the other hand, just threw out a bunch of pejoratives (greenwashing, industry shills, etc.). Living in a suburban or urban tree canopy doesn’t make you qualified to debate the sustainability of timber practices. You imply that the vast majority of timberland in the state is not maintained and logged in a sustainable manner. I would say that qualifies as a “WOW” statement.

          • George Chidi says:

            And Bridget has thoughtfully responded to your “contributions,” appropriately.

            I post under my real name. People can examine my qualifications openly as a result. A claim that you worked in the lumber industry for 30 years while hiding behind a pseudonym makes examination of that claim impossible. Your qualifications start with your identity. Questioning mine while hiding your own is laughable.

            As far as the pejoratives … well, if the shoe fits.

            FSC began in 1993 as a consumer and environmentalist-led initiative to promote sustainable logging practices. One year later, the American Forest and Paper Association — the industry trade group representing lumber interests — started SFI so that their own people would be “certifying” the sustainability of their lumber, instead of actual environmentalists. That’s classic greenwashing.

            • rightofcenter says:

              You’re right -it is a bit unfair to have an argument with an anonymous person. Because I want to protect my anonymity, I will bow out now. I will point out that your arguments would hold more water if you didn’t use the words lumber and timber interchangeably. They’re not the same thing.

  2. As a LEED Green Associate, I actually attended a US-GBC event yesterday. As a former Membership Committee officer for their Atlanta chapter, I feel pretty enlightened on how US-GBC works. Like George, I agree this is a completely biased post.

    The Green Building Code is an opt-in certification. “Those looking to improve sustainability should promote inclusive policies for wood, a sustainable and renewable building material by any objective definition.” What this says is…. I don’t want to play by your rules, but dammit I want your business.

    I’m open to discussion on how ATFS and SFI can raise their standards to be incorporated into the Green Building Code and find a compromise, but demanding “You better let us play too although we don’t want to change our processes at all” is not going to work.

    • rightofcenter says:

      Bridgette, so tell us what practices they could change to meet you “higher standards” ?

      • I’ll volley with you, but let’s be clear that this is Bridget talking, and I do not in any way represent the USGBC.

        1. Clear-cutting: the recommended limit is 80 acres, yet SFI routinely approves a 120 acre average
        2. Logging near vs protecting water supplies
        3. Use of toxic pesticides
        4. Conversion of old-growth forests to tree plantations
        5. Use of genetically modified trees. Waaaait a minute – Jack Kingston -> Monsanto Rider -> Huge monetary support from South Georgia….. ding ding ding.

        • rightofcenter says:

          1. The 80 acres is an arbitrary 1 size fits all limit that the FSC uses. The SFI recognizes that different areas and different species sometimes have different needs and different optimal management techniques based on science. There is certainly nothing magical about the sustainability of 80 versus 120 acres.
          2. Again, the BMPs that are followed by the forestry industry are science based and specifically designed to protect water supplies.
          3. I think you mean herbicides. Regardless, it would be nearly impossible to successfully operate the forestry industry in the south on a large scale basis without chemicals.
          4. There are almost no old growth forests remaining Georgia, and those that still exist aren’t being replaced with pine plantations. They are much more threatened by development. Most of the original old growth forests that were lost in Georgia weren’t lost to pine plantations, they were lost to farming. When trees get to a certain age and size, it becomes almost impossible to log them on a large scale basis. The modern sawmill isn’t designed to handle “old growth” size timber.
          5. Genetically modified trees is a relatively new concept, and they currently are a small portion of the seedlings that are planted every year.

          • So, I what I’m reading is…

            1. “We don’t like your recommendation, so we’re not going to acknowledge it.” Period.
            2. “What we’re currently doing is fine.” Period.
            3. “We have to use the type of toxins we’re using.” Period.
            4. “Old growth doesn’t fit our mass machinery.” Period.
            5. “Yeah, we use genetically modified trees. So what.” Period.

            Your inability to compromise or come up with creative solutions on any point is why the SFI can’t have nice, (er, green) things.

            Stop pitching a tantrum and come to the table with ideas to end a gridlock….

            • rightofcenter says:

              Bridget, what I wrote and what you read are not the same! Regardless, a blog just doesn’t lend itself to having a technical argument, so I will just go and wish you a good day.

            • Ellynn says:

              He’s right on items 3 and 4, basically because the Georgia timber location and type of wood it is designed around. Industrual milling in this state is based on Southern Yellow pine. The mills are designed to handle the diameter sizes of pine, unlike a mills in Upper Michagin that can handle furs, ash, oak and maple. They use different blades for cutting hardwoods, and different types of plaining. It would be a huge expence to retool a SYP mill that in most cases doesn’t handle a tree sized over 24″ dim even if it is old growth. Plus termites are hard to mange with out chemicals. Northern forest have this thing called winter, so termites are less of a problem. They have to worry about other pests, like moths.

  3. Ellynn says:

    Things to think about along with a few facts you might not know and a little common sense applied about wood and buildings.

    The Georgia timber in question is not all being turned into be construction products and is mostly Southern Yellow Pine (SYP). About half will become lumber or laminated goods – plywood, process boards and structural beams. Roughly a 1/8 of that becomes shipping goods or pallets, and 1/4 movable home goods like furniture. Another 1/4 is exported. So out of a $15 billion a year industry, we are talking around $3 billion of the industry is actual construction goods. That’s still a big number if it is only 20 % or so of the Georgia timber.

    SYP is a soft heavily grained wood that is not very dense. When standing, a basic 2 x 4 has incredible bearing strength. When sideways, a 2 x12 can handle average loads in spans under 12 feet, but it will bend quicker over time then other structural woods like Douglas fur. It is not an ideal finish wood. If it is an exposed finish wood, it is mainly for a structural reason, like a window or door frame.

    The certified wood credit in LEED is an optional credit, meaning unless a project is going for a high certification, the owner is choosing the MR Credit 7. The wood i is used for permanently installed structural framing, floor and sub flooring, exterior sheathing, doors, windows, and finishes. In order to receive the credit at least 50% material cost of all new wood has to FSC certified. There is a different credit for reclaimed and recycled wood. If it is an assembly type product, like a window, you have to calculate the amount of wood used by the weight as compared to other items in the assembly, then calculate of the assembly cost of each item and be over 50% FSC wood in the assembly cost.

    Sounds like a lot of potentially Georgia grown wood could be used… until you go down to the next leave of questions – who is using what wood where and why.

    The majority of structural wood (SYP) and plywood are used in residential construction. I can tell you not many people building a house work for LEED certification. They are not going to care if the wood is certified by FSC, ATFS, SFI, M.I.C., K.E.Y., or M.O.U.S.E . Most people who build outside of a city area don’t even care if the house is built to basic construction code. A number of people have no use for any type of government sounding like program telling them what to use where in their own home. Number of people who want a LEED house is 1% or less of the market tops.

    Some small scale private commercial construction uses structural wood (offices and 3 story hotels). Most of this industry is cost driven. Unless you have a client who benefits from saying ‘I have a LEED building’, FSC is not a factor.

    On large scale private or publically funded construction, the amount of structural woods drops to almost none due to the size of the building. Once a project reaches a magical square footage for the type of people who use the structure, you are required by the building code to use a non-combustible construction types. Last time I checked, wood was still a combustible. These are the buildings most likely to work towards a LEED certificate.

    It should be noted other profitable ‘good for Georgia’ materials are used heavily in non-combustible construction. The exterior gypsum board that Georgia Pacific produces, the brick and CMU industry, the YYK plant in Dublin, the raw materials shipped through the ports, like gyp, talc, zinc, and steel. These are also very high scoring items in a number of mandatory LEED credits

    So what wood is used in non-combustible buildings? Plywood and dimensional lumber (SYP mainly) is allowed, but is required by code to be fire rated. That create issues with other credits, like off gassing, so it is limited in use. Wood doors are composite panels, and are normally out of a harder wood, or use fire rated cores. Wood windows could be used, but the commercial industry for wood windows is out of the upper Midwest. That wood is unlikely to be grown in Georgia even if it does not a FSC friendly product. Cabinet framing is where you find Georgia grown woods. Other woods, like flooring, trims, and paneling are mainly poplars, maples, oaks, and high end woods, like cherry & walnuts. Most of this wood is grown in northern sections of the country or Canada (as is most of that evil 90% outside of the country wood). Frankly these woods cost and weigh more than SYP. Most are slow growth old woods. Average age of a maple used in the flooring industry is over 65 years, and before someone cuts the thing down it is part of the maple syrup industry and made the owner more money over time then cutting it down. Based on a cabinet framed with Georgia SYP with maple and aspen T & G plywood, the cost of the maple and aspen by weight over the SYP cost per pound will likely meet the 50% of cost value of the wood in the finish product. If you look at the project as a whole the 50% in a building is most likely going to come from flooring. Think about the largest wood item in a k-12 school (hint; it’s FSC maple and children shot stuff while standing on it).

    What does this all mean?

    If only 10 % of Georgia timber is FSC, that’s still almost half of the amount of Georgia timber potentially going in construction products.

    What FSC wood we do have that could be used in a LEED project is going to be priced higher than other wood. If ATFS or SFI becomes ok and the majority of wood certified in Georgia is allowed, the price of SYP increases, allowing for higher profits but forcing the majority of the people who use the wood ( and don’t need the certification) to be charged more to build their homes. Smaller (or less homes) built means less construction jobs. Other non construction wood items will also go up in cost, like paper.

    By removing the LEED certification or moving towards other Georgia timber friendly certification on state funded projects,we potentially hurt other Georgia industries and tax payers. Some sustainable certifications have lower recyclable content requirements, which hurts the carpet and gyp board industry. Some have lower environment requirements allowing for less natural solar passive lighting. Less windows, less YKK sales. Plus more lights would be required, costing the owner (the Georgia tax payer) more money. Some have lower HVAC load requirements, which reduces upfront costs, but increase the life time usage of power, which we pay for and then Southern can charge us more based on demand). They have less restrictive water use standards. We already have a water use problem plus the we end up paying more for water usage over time.

    But here is the real kicker…

    The value (cost per pound used) of Georgia grown wood (certified or not) used in a building most likely to work towards LEED certification is STILL overall going to be under the 50% cut off and have no effect on receiving the credit if it is even used.

    Let me rephrase this – it will not increase the amount of Georgia grown timber used on typical LEED building.

    Not having it certified won’t make a very big difference to the Georgia timber industry on the whole, except raise the price of SYP for them to profit,at the cost of other industries in Georgia and future home builders.

    • rightofcenter says:

      Speaking of industry trolls. Who are you a lobbyist for? One little problem- there is no premium paid for certified timber, so your analysis is inaccurate.

      • Ellynn says:

        If we remove the premium paid, it’ make the cost value by weight of other woods even more usable over SYP. It also does not negate the amout of SYP used on the majority of LEED projects based on construction type or the damage done to other Geogia industries.

        As to being a troll, I’m more like the elf. I work in a sector that is affected by LEED, wood prices, people who would think about using LEED or not, building codes, education, Georgia law, government regs, and have worked with some people who post on this site, which is why I use one name only. My brother is a real live Lumber Jack, mainly for the maple hardwood industry.

        As to being a lobbyist, that’s funny…

    • Sacramennah says:

      I have really enjoyed this entire discussion. As for ROC and the Clearcutters, it brings to mind the old quote, “Never have so many fought so hard for so little.”

  4. Harry says:

    Can someone expound more on the above-mentioned FSC double standard enjoyed by South American and Asian producers?

  5. saltycracker says:

    The most recent complaint I listened to was that large pension funds were selling timber investments in Georgia to each other, running up prices to get higher fees and freezing out those looking to buy to use the product.
    Comments ?

    • Will Durant says:

      Just spitballing here but a lot of the trading around probably has to do with taking advantage of Georgia’s Farm Conservation exemptions on property taxes. It’s pretty easy to agree to do nothing with timber land for 10 years but there are limits on how much acreage one entity can shelter. This is a prime example of a law that was sold to the public with good intentions by most of the legislators but masked the consequences, especially to the rural counties. It has been a vehicle for developers, speculators, and other politically connected types to pay a pittance on property taxes.

      • rightofcenter says:

        Will, there are no limits to the number of acres that an entity can enter into FLPA covenant. As for your theory, I would say the property tax issue is a non-factor in the pension funds interest in timberland. As for developers and speculators, if they invested in timberland for that reason, they are undoubtedly broke by now.

      • saltycracker says:

        The conservation plan holds a lot of pluses while the failure to impose impact fees when/if developed is irresponsible.

        The situation smells of a lot of green being made by those getting fees on the financial structures holding the land and selling it for more and more to those with bundles of money forecasting a big gain down the road. Suckering pension funds and other hopeful investors and dealing out or forcing a sale on those in legit timber businesses. We’ve got a great track record on blowing bubbles.

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