Two Timber Firms Pretending To Be 'Green,' Groups Allege

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 24, 2006

SEATTLE -- Two of the nation's largest timber companies, Weyerhaeuser and Plum Creek Timber, have polished their public images for years by participating in a program that certifies that their logging is environmentally friendly.

But in separate challenges this month from the far corners of the United States, environmental groups in Washington state and in Maine are accusing Weyerhaeuser Co. and Plum Creek Timber Co. of using the forest industry's green-labeling program as a cover while they log in ways that harm endangered spotted owls in Washington and violate forestry laws in Maine.

The Seattle Audubon Society and the Natural Resources Council of Maine have demanded in documents sent to the Sustainable Forestry Board that it revoke certification for the companies until they comply with standards they have pledged to uphold.

Both companies say the demands are unjustified and show ignorance of relevant facts.

The requests mark the first time that mainstream environmental groups have publicly attempted to turn the forest industry's green certification process against big timber companies by insisting that they be suspended from the program, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, said William H. Banzhaf, president of the forestry board, which oversees certification.

Green labeling is a major marketing tool in the timber industry. It allows companies to reach a bigger marketplace while assuring increasingly sophisticated consumers that their purchases are not harming the environment.

As worry about global warming increases, green building codes are becoming politically fashionable. They have recently been adopted for private construction in the District, Montgomery County and Pasadena, Calif. Eighteen states and 11 federal agencies use such codes for their own buildings. And green codes often give credit to builders who use timber certified to have been logged in a sustainable way.

The timber industry's main lobby, the American Forest & Paper Association, developed the Sustainable Forest Initiative in 1994. That was a year after the Forest Stewardship Council, a group of environmentalists, forestry experts, sociologists and indigenous groups, created another certification system that is often described as far less friendly to the interests of big timber companies.

The competing certification regimes are usually referred to by initialisms -- SFI and FSC -- that can be easily confused. Some environmentalists say this is an intentional industry effort to muddy the green-labeling waters and confuse the public. Timber companies dispute that assertion.

Unlike the industry-created SFI program, FSC rules allow virtually no cutting of old-growth forests, nor do they allow operators to log off a diverse stand of trees and replace it with a plantation forest dominated by a single species, which is often done to enhance the commercial value of forestland.

Home Depot, Ikea and Williams-Sonoma are among the major retailers that have announced their preference for FSC-certified lumber or paper. The U.S. Green Building Council, which oversees green standards for construction in the District and Montgomery County, among other places, credits only builders that use FSC lumber. But other retailers, such as OfficeMax, have preferences that do not distinguish between certification systems.

The Seattle Audubon Society and the Natural Resources Council of Maine argue that the Sustainable Forest Initiative could lose all credibility if its board does not suspend Weyerhaeuser and Plum Creek until they clean up their forestry practices.

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