In what could be a major step toward quieting the wood-certification dispute, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has proposed giving credit under its LEED program to several currently unrecognized wood-certification groups for at least helping bring more transparency to green construction efforts.

USGBC's Pilot Credit for Certified Products unveiled earlier this month would, for the first time, enable wood certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), Canadian Standards Association (CSA), American Tree Farm System (ATFS) and Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes (PEFC) to qualify for one LEED point. At present, LEED--short for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design--gives points only for wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

USGBC's move in effect creates a middle ground in the long-running tug-of-war over whether the various schemes all do a good enough job to have the wood they certify be worth points under LEED's popular green building programs. It does this by in effect ignoring questions about whether any group's program performs better and instead concentrating solely on issues of transparency--in essence, whether that program makes it easier for outsiders to see what a forester, logger, and millworker are doing to promote green initiatives, as well as make available data on a wood producer's "environmental footprint."

"We want LEED buildings to have more products that we know more about, and fewer products that we don't know very much about," USGBC said in the document proposing the pilot credit. "The credit rewards greater transparency and knowledge about product life-cycles."

SFI quickly cheered the idea. “SFI welcomes the LEED pilot credit that recognizes all credible forest certification standards, including SFI, ATFS, PEFC, CSA, and FSC," the organization said. "This new direction for USGBC is a win-win, good for the forests, good for the green builders across North America."

Others weren't so happy.

"It makes FSC equivalent to industry-based forest certification systems with demonstrably lower standards," wrote Jason Grant, a California-based sustainable forestry consultant, on a LEED user forum. "Given the history of the certified wood credit revision, this is indefensible, even in a pilot credit. The camel's nose is now under the tent, and no amount of hand-waving on the part of USGBC can disguise or negate this fact. The environmental community, committed sustainable design professionals, and others concerned about keeping the "L" in LEED are now on full alert."

Wood-certification groups have been battling USGBC and each other since 2006, creating a struggle that--given how just one LEED point is involved--strikes some inside USGBC as a tempest in a teapot. The fight stems in part from the fact that FSC and USGBC have their roots in the environmental community while SFI was created by the timber industry and is still seen by some green advocates as too closely tied to loggers, even though SFI stresses it's a fully independent organization today. Those differing roots still are reflected in their management philosophies: FSC's certification has extensive chain-of-custody provisions and takes into account a timber company's care for indigenous populations and whether it engages in tree farms and genetic manipulation of seedstock. In contrast, SFI trusts far more in local rule of law and takes a different approach on some of the more technical forestry issues.

USGBC spent years coming up with proposals to revise LEED in ways that might recognize groups other than FSC. Late last year, it submitted to vote by a special "consensus body" of USGBC members what amounted to its fourth draft of proposed benchmark standards. But that proposal failed to win the required two-thirds approval--in part, perhaps, because both FSC and SFI opposed it. ( Story)

USGBC said then that any further changes to its green-wood standards would come as part of a larger rerwrite of its LEED rules that would take effect in 2012. SFI told its members it understands the second draft of those rules could be issued for comment next month. "This will include a rewrite of the Materials and Resources section of the LEED rating tool," SFI wrote. "We are told there will be a focus on more of a life-cycle assessment (LCA) based approach. It is this document that will contain how structural wood will be awarded points under LEED, and we won’t know until the public comment draft is available whether USGBC has altered their approach to wood, to rapidly renewable, and whether they have modified their approach to forest certification in this document as well."

LEED's Pilot Credit program is the tool used to encourage tests of new and revised langauge for LEED credits. Information collected during the pilot credit period--including feedback on LEED's forums--helps determine whether those credits will be included officially in the LEED rating system. Given how the next LEED rewrite is under way, it's quite possible that the pilot credit for wood-certification schemes could be wrapped into that larger rewrite when it comes up for a vote by USGBC members.