The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will preferentially select wood in its new building projects, seek to enhance research and development in green building materials, and look for ways to show off wood as a green building material in big buildings, Agriculture Secretary Tim Vilsack announced late Wednesday.

In addition, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell this week directed all USFS units to increase use of locally milled timber in all new agency buildings and facilities, and Vilsack told the heads of all other USDA agencies to incorporate the Forest Service policy of using domestic sustainable wood products as the preferred green building material for all USDA facilities and buildings.

"Wood has a vital role to play in meeting the growing demand for green building materials," a USDA news release quoted Vilsack as saying. "Forest Service studies show that wood compares favorably to competing materials. In keeping with the Obama Administration's America's Great Outdoors conservation agenda, USDA has made a strong commitment to conserving and restoring our forests to protect watersheds, recreation, and rural jobs."

According to USDA's announcement, the department's latest strategy comes in three parts:

  1. USFS "will preferentially select wood in new building construction while maintaining its commitment to certified green building standards."
  2. Vilsack wants USFS "to examine ways to increase its already strong commitment to green building by reporting to him on ways to enhance the research and development being done around green building materials."
  3. USFS "will actively look for opportunities to demonstrate the innovative use of wood as a green building material for all new structures of 10,000 square feet or more using recognized green building standards such as LEED, Green Globes or the National Green Building Standard."

"Our country has the resources, the work force and the innovative spirit to reintroduce wood products into all aspects of the next generation of buildings," USFS' Tidwell said. "As we move forward with restoring America's forests, we are getting smarter and more efficient in how we use wood products as both an energy and green building source, which will help maintain rural jobs." USDA cited a recent Forest Service lifecycle analysis that it said found that harvesting, transporting, manufacturing and using wood in lumber and panel products in building yields fewer air emissions, including greenhouse gases, than resource extraction, manufacturing and using other commonly used building materials.

Vilsack's announcement avoided taking sides in the fights over certification standards for green buildings and green wood, and some wood advocacy groups took note. For instance, the president of the American Wood Council, which represents timber companies, commended USDA for recognizing Green Globes and the National Green Building Standard as well as LEED.

And the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI)--the green wood certification standard that many North American timber companies prefer--noted in its statement that it is among a number of organizations that have called on USDA to recognize multiple green building rating systems. Currently, the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED system--arguably the most popular green rating for commercial buildings--gives points for green wood only when that lumber has been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.

"SFI is excited to see the explicit recognition of the Green Globes standard and the National Green Building Standard, both of which recognize multiple forest certification standards including SFI," SFI president and CEO Kathy Abusow said. "Opening the door to other green building rating systems increases opportunities for third party certified wood to be used and recognized in green buildings."