The forestry community is scoring headlines from its campaign enlisting governors, members of Congress, and ordinary citizens to persuade the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) to open up its LEED wood-certification standards. But that effort raises a so-far unanswered question: Why spend so much money and effort persuading people who don't have a say on the issue and focus instead on the people who do--USGBC members?

On the other hand, it could be argued that the forestry community doesn't have much of a choice. That's because the voting system at USGBC looks to outsiders as vaguely un-American at best and intentionally murky at worst.

The appropriateness of the forestry community's lobbying tactics has generated scant public attention in what is now Act IV of the drama over which groups' wood certification schemes qualify for points in the USGBC's LEED program recognizing green, sustainable construction. To date, only wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council qualifies for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) points. Rival organizations such as the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), Canadian Standards Association (CSA), American Tree Farm System (ATFS), and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes (PEFC) all believe their certification programs also should qualify.

On June 14, USGBC issued its fourth draft regarding the standards that a wood certification scheme would have to abide by in order to have its certification deemed eligible for LEED points. As with the three previous drafts, SFI led the roster of groups complaining that USGBC's standards were jury-rigged in such a way to as to bar any group other than FSC from qualifying. SFI--which was founded by forestry companies but now is an independent organization--also has complained that the USGBC panel writing the drafts regularly has ignored what SFI has submitted during the comment periods for the past three drafts. (Story)

Not Quite Standard Procedure

USGBC prides itself on being a member-driven organization whose entire body votes on whether to accept and implement recommendations to change its rules. In that sense, it's not much different from any other public governing agency or stock corporation.

In government, it's typical that when an organization seeking change fails to get its way on an initiative at the committee level, it goes to the next step and will push to change--or kill--the idea when the full body votes on it. In a public company, individual shareholders and groups have the right to offer motions to all owners of the company, even if it's something that management doesn't want to see happen.

Ostensibly, the SFI and others in the forestry community would campaign to kill the rule when the full USGBC votes--most likely late this year--on the proposal. That hasn't happened. Instead, the forestry community has tried to apply political pressure on USGBC.

Congressmen Speak Out

Last week, for instance, it announced that 79 members of the House of Representatives from 35 states wrote to USGBC urging it to accept "all credible forest certification systems for qualification under the LEED rating system." Press releases from various forestry groups--as well as from the public relations firm Porter Novelli, which was hired by at least one group member--also noted that 10 U.S. governors had written to USGBC on the same issue.

In addition, SFI has made much of a petition campaign it spearheaded that resulted in nearly 6,000 people urging USGBC to recognize SFI, ATFS, CSA, and PEFC, as well as FSC.

What's odd about all this is that neither members of Congress nor sitting governors have voting rights on the USGBC issue, and it's likely that the overwhelming majority of the petition signers aren't in USGBC either (SFI hasn't attempted to find out.) It would appear likely, then, that SFI and the others are focusing their efforts on the people who aren't in a position to make a difference.

Jason Metnick, SFI's senior director for market access and product labeling, said in an e-mail to ProSales that his group believes it is reaching USGBC members who follow LEED issue. He also noted SFI's other activities, such as appearing at trade events like the American Institute of Architects convention, its special LEED web page and its outreach to the media.

"All are helping to deliver the message to USGBC members and others that LEED must change," he said. "We also believe that it was important to give a voice to USGBC members and others that LEED must change."

Metnick added that the letters from Congress and statehouses show "the passion of so many elected officials concerned about the impact on their states--close to one-third of all LEED buildings are government-owned or occupied."

Who's Working the Legislators?

That may be true, but one would presume that if SFI and the others were worried about that, they would be lobbying Congress and the states to make certain that other green building schemes besides LEED were recognized, or at least that state and federal projects would be allowed to buy certified lumber other than that stamped by FSC.

But while Metnick says state-level lobbying is under way, SFI isn't making a big deal about it. In its latest newsletter, there's not a single story about state or federal lobbying for rules recognizing systems other than FSC, but at least four of the eight pages attack USGBC and contain calls to "join the movement to open LEED."

So why don't SFI and the other forestry interests go straight to the USGBC membership? For a public body, that's not as easy as one might think.

USGBC counts 17,000 companies as its members. But the council says that, for privacy reasons, it doesn't make available a membership list.

No Easy Access

One can go to the USGBC site and get a searchable list of members that delivers up to 5,000 responses at a time, but that page also declares that the directory information "may not be used for the purpose of solicitation or direct mail. Content may not be copied or reproduced in any way." USGBC's website also has a forum where members can post thoughts, but a note there is no assurance of getting to everyone.

Actually, reaching the entire membership isn't what the forestry community needs, because USGBC has decided that, for the forest certification issue, the approval vote will be made by what it calls a "consensus body." While any USGBC members can opt to be part of this body, Council procedures dictate that no one of its three major constituencies--users, producers, or general interest--can constitute more than 50% of the consensus body. This is only the third time a consensus body has been convened to decide an issue.

The opt-in period for USGBC members ends at 5 p.m. PT on Wednesday, July 21. (Details) Once that happens, USGBC then will review who has requested to opt in and will determine whether the group is, as it likes to say, "naturally balanced." But Scot Horst, USGBC's senior vice president for LEED, could not say what percentages--beyond, presumably, the 50% maximum--would be permitted. Nor could he say what would happen if it turns out that one of the three constituencies make up more than 50% of the opt-ins.

"That would present a unique challenge," he said, adding later: "That's something we'll have to deal with coming up."

Horst also fended off suggestions that USGBC isn't listening to complainers. He stressed that the organization has just concluded its fourth comment period, each of which prompted thousands of letters to the Council. He also urged groups that have bones to pick with what USGBC is doing to join the Council and work within it for change.