The National Lumber and Building Material Dealers Association (NLBMDA) today urged a standard-setting setting group for softwood lumber to help create an eco-label that mills could add to their wood grade stamp if the timber they use came from a certified green forest. If enacted and recognized by forest certification groups, the eco-label ultimately could eliminate the expenses and rules that dealers now must deal with when fulfilling chain-of-custody certfication rules for handling certified green wood.

NLBMDA made its proposal to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) as part of NIST's request for comments on potential revisions to the American Softwood Lumber Standard. In separate comments, NLBMDA cited dealers' complaints about what they regard as a deterioration in grading standards and warned about potential conflicts between graders' and states' standards for sizing lumber products.

The American Softwood Lumber Standard is the organizing set of rules that grading organizations use when they set their own standards for assessing wood products according to five elements: type of wood, grade, moisture content, mill number, and agency mark. Given that role, NLBMDA said, it makes sense for this same standard to create a regime for certifying whether the timber used in a wood product came from forests that had been certified by an independent body as being grown in an environmentally responsible manner.

"This could be achieved by developing a sixth element to the current grade stamp, verifying that the raw material was derived from a certified forest," NLBMDA proposed. "The production processes would be audited and certified by the same infrastructure used to confirm the current elements of the grade stamp."

At present, green certification groups--most prominently the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), Canadian Standards Association (CSA), Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), American Tree Farm System (ATFS) and the global system known as PEFC--certify forests with brand names and marks that appear on wrappers and tags attached to milled wood, but they don't put their mark on the wood itself. In addition, FSC requires that any company which handles the milled product along the supply chain must carry chain-of-custody certification, which typically costs a dealer several thousand dollars a year to carry. FSC also requires that its certified wood be stored on the dealer's yard in a separate place from non-certified wood.

While dealers may grumble about the rules as costly and onerous, they follow them because, to date, FSC-certified lumber is the only kind of wood that qualifies for points under the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED system. The green homes standard launched last year by the National Association of Home Builders recognizes other certifiers, but it follows each certifying group's rules as to what makes that wood certifiably green when it finally gets to the job site. Partly as a result, some dealers also are getting SFI chain-of-custody certification.

NLBMDA stressed that in creating the eco-label the American Lumber Standards Committee--the quasi-governmental group that oversees the softwood standard--doesn't have to write its own forest certification rules. It also gave the committee the option of recognizing all the major certifying regimes as good enough for an eco-label rather than choosing between them. "These programs would be scrutinized only to the extent that they may or may not meet certain criteria required by [the American Softwood Lumber Standard] or the Procedures for the Development of Voluntary Product Standards," NLBMDA wrote.

The association said its idea would "bring clarity and certainty" to distributors, users and consumers regarding green claims, promote responsible green practices, and eliminate disruptions in the supply chain while dovetailing with the growing number of green building standards being created nationwide.

"The plastics and aluminum industries enjoy substantial public success with their re-cycle labels," the dealers' group wrote. "NLBMDA members want to promote the renewable and sustainable qualities of lumber and forests. Public confidence in the eco-origin of lumber products is best achieved with a simple, universally understood, on-product eco-label."

The support of lumber and forests isn't a blanket endorsement of all that timber mills are doing, however, as NLBMDA made clear in its second set of comments regarding proposed revisions to the softwood lumber standard. NLBMDA said a recent survey of its members found numerous cases in which dealers complained of what, in essence, was grade inflation.

For instance, NLBMDA quoted one survey respondent as declaring: "Sometimes the graded lumber #2 looks like #3 or #4." Another told the associaton: "We have experienced considerable deteriority of the quality of #2&Btr spruce produced from wood in the beetle kill areas of Canada. With depressed market conditions, some mills have pushed the grade to its lower limits."

And a third told NLBMDA "the difference between #1, Prime and #2 seem to be vague, allowing an overlapping in the appearance of the wood from both a vendor and customer standpoint."

NLBMDA also noted problems dealers in California encountered when the state's Bureau of Measurement Standards began to check compliance by yards with regard to possible mislabeling of lumber products. It said the softwood lumber standard already permits variance in the actual size of a product, such as permitting a product labeled as 1x12 pine shelving as actually being closer to 3/4 inch by 11-1/4 inches.

The problem, NLBMDA said, is that California state law doesn't allow more than 3% variation from that standard, and some products are way off the mark. For example, NLBMDA said one dealer found that the 1x12s in his yard varied between 3/4 inch to 11/16 inch in thickness and 10-7/8 inches to 11-1/4 inches in width.

NLBMDA asked the NIST to look into potential conflicts between the software standard and state rules regarding lumber measures.