Some of the leading forces in the green movement's wood certification wars made clear to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) this week that they saw little to like in the council's latest plan to decide which groups' certification schemes are reliable enough for the products they certify to qualify for LEED points.

The groups blasted 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, one side argued, was that the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) almost certainly would remain the only group approved by USGBC, thus depriving the possibility of LEED points for wood certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), Canadian Standards Association (CSI), American Tree Farm System (ATFS), and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC). Those latter groups certify more wood in North America than does FSC.

The USGBC's proposed rules "are not all science based, overly prescriptive, and are biased towards the FSC program," the Sustainable Forestry Initiative said in its comment letter.

The American Forest & Paper Association argued that "by excluding effectively--if no longer explicitly--competing schemes ... the Benchmark as proposed serves only to entrench the current LEED policy of single-sourcing FSC as its designated third-party forest products certification scheme."

And the National Lumber & Building Material Dealers Association wrote: "By effectively denying recognition of [all schemes except FSC], the LEED wood credit is rendered meaningless in most local building markets in North America. In a mature market-driven economy with numerous players in the supply chain of lumber products, supply and demand will not reach any equilibrium without sufficient sources of LEED-recognized lumber from the other exemplary forest certification schemes."

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. "The benchmark does not have prerequisite conditions that the standard-setting organization must be membership-based, that the membership be open to a wide variety of parties, and that the Board of Directors are elected by the membership," FSC-US wrote.

USGBC received more than 1,000 comments during the one-month comment period that ended Oct. 14. A USGBC group will review the comments. Depending on the comments, it either will put the proposal up for a vote by council members or else revise the draft and send it out for a third round of public comments. In either case, there are no deadlines for taking action.

Currently, only wood certified by the FSC qualifies for points under the USGBC's LEED program, which is widely regarded as the premier green certifier for commerical buildings and is working to become just as meaningful in residential housing. SFI, CSA, ATFS and PEFC have pressed for most of this decade to get their certification schemes recognized as well.

In its latest draft, USGBC proposed to give LEED credits for any wood certified by a scheme that meets its Forest Certification Benchmark, a collection of criteria that measures whether the certifier clears USGBC's standards regarding governance, forestry standards, chain of custody, and accredition/certification processes. To pass the benchmark test, a certification group must comply with 48 prerequisite concerns and earn at least 13 of 32 possible credits for their handling of other issues.

Several of those prerequisites concern how an organization is structured. For instance, USGBC's first prerequisite demands that the governance structures of the entity responsible for certification must allocate no more than one-third of the structures' votes to governmental or for-profit forest owners, producers and similiar commercial entities. "USGBC is much too prescriptive in their requirements on who can vote and who qualifies for the economic chamber, and the developers of this benchmark offer no reason for justifying this level of detail," SFI replied. "Government organizations should be included in the social sector since they represent society's interest and public lands. Independent organizations and their Board of Directors should be free topopulate their boards with well-qualified individuals that meet their own values within the environmental, economic and social chambers."

NLBMDA sounded a similar note, arguing that the USGBC's forest certification standards "should be informed by realities of the North American marketplace, governmental regimes applicable to land use and environmental protection, the well-developed jurisprudence of private land ownership, and constitutionally protected rights to petition a democratically elected government."

FSC-US, on the other hand, argued that USGBC's benchmarks on treatments of indigenous peoples--benchmarks for which it gives credits, but doesn't require compliance--should become mandatory.

There weren't as many complaints about the actual forestry practices that would have to be examined by the certification groups. In general, SFI suggested USGBC toss them out of the benchmarks on grounds of being unnecessary, off the point, or scientifically unproven. But FSC-US cried alarm over what it views as USGBC's soft-pedaling on the treatment of genetically modified organisms. In general, that's a far bigger issue in Europe than in North America.

"The risks associated with genetically modified organisms are too significant to consider their use acceptable," FSC-US wrote. "We support this component of the benchmark (Sc4) as a prerequisite and not as a credit."

Several groups also contended that USGBC's rules on wood are so restrictive that they in effect hurt the green movement by promoting imports of foreign wood as well as by promoting the use of steel and concrete, both of which are regarded by these groups as being less green.

"The only explanation offered by USGBC for the lack of similar certification requirements for [steel and concrete] is that 'no certification programs exist for those materials,'" AF&PA wrote. "The lack of forest certification scheme assessment criteria has not stopped USGBC from embarking on a quest for five-plus years to develop one, so this is hardly a credible excuse.

"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," it added.