The chairman of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) committee responsible for figuring out the rules that wood certfication groups would follow in order to make the wood they certify qualify for LEED points regards the long-running fight over the issue as "totally out of proportion to its importance."

"We've already spent more time on this than it's worth," Steve Baer told ProSales as he and his counterparts prepared to plow through more than 1,220 often-contentious comments to his group's proposed rules for determining which green wood certification schemes should qualify for LEED points. This is the second time he's done this--the first comment period drew 1,800 responses--and he said in an interview last week that he wouldn't be surprised if he'll have to do this a third time early next spring.

Baer, a Pennsylvania-based consultant, sits at the center of the certification storm by dint of his work as chairman of the USGBC's Materials and Resources Technical Advisory Group. He hopes to reach final agreement on the proposal by April 2010, but his hopes may exceed his grasp.

Green wood groups such as the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFA), Canadian Standards Association (CSA), American Tree Farm System (ATFS), and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC)--which collectively certify far more North American wood than does FSC--have long carped over the Forest Stewardship Council's (FSC) status as the sale certification group whose label will earn a builder LEED points. The other groups regard that status as unfair, unreasonable, and ultimately a boon to steel and concrete producers.

While USGBC may think its latest proposal--sent out for comment in September--represents a way to get them into the tent, the groups were hardly thankful. Their comment letters continued to blast USGBC, largely over two issues: how a certifying group operates, and which issues the certifying groups should consider when deciding whether to attach their green label to a wood product. The net result, they argued, was that FSC almost certainly would remain the only group approved by USGBC.

"The USGBC system is a closed and biased approach to this significant social and economic issue, with no legitimate purpose to justify its exclusionary and anti-competitive character," the timber industry's American Forest & Paper Association charged.

On the other hand, the U.S. branch of FSC (FSC-US) took USGBC to task for not being specific enough on standards for the organizational structure of certifying groups. It also argued that USGBC's benchmarks on treatments of indigenous peoples--benchmarks for which it gives credits, but doesn't require compliance--should become mandatory. The other groups don't believe social issues should be used as a standard at all.

To all this, Baer asks why there's such a furor when the stakes are so small.

"I've told both [sides] they're talking about the wrong issue," he said. "Certified wood is worth one point (in most LEED scoring systems). All the points that you can get from using any kind of wood instead of steel or concrete is eight or 10 points. ... You can build a home entirely out of steel or concrete and then put in a cutting board (made of certified wood) and get one point, because all the wood in your home is certified. Do you think your lumberyards want that?"

Rather than bickering, Baer believes the various wood groups should spend their time instead on campaigns to promote the use of wood in construction. It doesn't matter "if you use FSC, SFI, or wood from Joe's Hardware, it's better to use wood he said. If they all had a common message, at the end of the day, they'd sell more wood."

His model is the Coca-Cola Co., which several decades ago could have been complacent about dominating the soft-drink market but instead decided to become a company that increased its share of the market for all liquids, not just sodas. Coke's campaign not only led it to sell water and drinks, but also more Coca-Colas, he said-and the effort increased Pepsi's sales as well.

The position we've taken is that there needs to be due diligence (in choosing certification groups), but lots of good wood is a good thing," Baer said. But from his tone of voice, it was clear he believes that not everyone is getting the message.