The Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) today urged a "no" vote against the U.S. Green Building Council's (USGBC) proposed benchmark standards that would decide when a wood-certification group like SFI would have its certification qualify for points in the LEED rating system. In doing so, it joins with the Forest Stewardship Council--the only group whose certification currently qualifies--in rejecting the USGBC proposal, although for radically different reasons.

The voting by a "consensus group" of USGBC members, which began Oct. 25 and ends Nov. 23, sets benchmarks that any wood-certification group would have to pass if it wants to have its certification system qualify for points under LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), an important green construction rating system. To date, only FSC-certified wood certified qualifies for LEED points. That irks organizations such as SFI, the Canadian Standards Association (CSA), American Tree Farm System (ATFS), and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes (PEFC), which all argue their certification programs also should qualify.

"Over the past five years, SFI Inc has been committed to constructively engaging in the U.S. Green Building Council's forest certification evaluation in the LEED rating system," SFI said in a statement. "However, with a vote upon us for a set of overly complicated benchmarks that do not present a workable solution, we simply must vote no.

"In arriving at the decision to vote against the proposed benchmarks, we had to consider the fact that the USGBC made zero changes to the final version, despite the plethora of comments it received from SFI and others," SFI continued. "Furthermore, the 81 detailed benchmarks represent an overly complicated set of criteria that no other building material is measured against. This is not a decision that we arrived at lightly or easily. We believe in the power of working with stakeholders to find solutions that promote responsible forestry and support our communities across North America. These ideas are the very essence of our own program. It was for these reasons we participated in each of the four rounds of comments on the USGBC benchmarks. The fact is, a process that is being criticized by all sides is not a 'winning formula'--it means we need to find a different solution, one that can achieve broader buy-in."

SFI said USGBC :should recognize the value of wood products from responsibly-managed forests and should recognize all credible forest certification standards: SFI, FSC, PEFC, CSA and ATFS." It noted that 99 governors and members of Congress have lined up behind such a view. "The USGBC understandably must listen to the voices within their membership, but should also listen to a broader set of stakeholders, such as elected officials who are entrusted with the public good," SFI said. "With government-owned or occupied buildings making up close to one-third of all LEED projects, the government voice is one that should not be ignored."

The fight over wood-certification systems ranks among the most bitterly debated issues that the USGBC has ever confronted, and what's up for a vote now is the fourth draft of a document that has been undergoing revisions for several years. In essence, it revolves around profound differences between environmentalists and tree-growers regarding what are ecologically responsible forestry practices and how one should set up a group to certify that proper practices are being used.

FSC has argued that the standards of groups like SFI's would represent "a big step backwards for the green building movement." On Oct. 25, it backed up its call for a "no" vote by distributing an open letter from 14 major environmental groups urging eligible voters to do that on grounds that the USGBC standards should be at least as rigorous as the FSC's. (Story)

"Although the Benchmark does an admirable job of identifying many (though not all) of the important criteria for evaluating forest management and certification, it represents a step backwards--and a direct contravention of USGBC's mission," the open letter from the environmental groups said. They also said the controversy over certified wood "has been triggered by those who have a lot invested in status quo forestry, and who see the rising demands of the green building marketplace as a threat rather than an opportunity." SFI originally was an arm of the timber industry but now stresses that it's an independent group. Its proponents also argue that they feel just as strongly about responsible, ecological forestry as the environmental groups do but simply feel differently about the best practices and approaches to achieve that goal.