The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) requested comment recently on a fourth draft of its proposed scheme to determine which forest certification schemes would qualify for points under its LEED system, and three of its sharpest critics already have declared--again, for sharply different reasons--that they don't like it.

The USGBC's proposal "discriminates against North American forests and against almost all of the independent forest certification standards used in the United States and Canada," said one of those standard-setters, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), in a June 15 statement. SFI argues that the proposed rules as written "may result in the continued exclusion" from the list of potential certifiers not only its group but also the American Tree Farm System (ATFS), the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) Sustainable Forest Management Standard, and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes (PEFC).

The National Lumber & Building Material Dealers Association (NLBMDA) backs SFI's contention that the draft benchmarks are overly vague and subjective. "NLBMDA's long-standing policy is that all the major programs, including [the Forest Stewardship Council, or FSC], SFI, ATFS, CSA and PEFC, should be recognized by USGBC and that wood certified under those programs should be recognized for the LEED wood credit. If LEED is to remain relevant in the markeplace, it is the sensible action to take," NLBMDA President Michael O'Brien told ProSales.

On the other hand, Corey Brinkema, president of the U.S. branch of FSC (FSCUS), recommended today that USGBC members reject the fourth draft, declaring that it "contains a few minor improvements but still falls far short of the environmental and social standards set by the Forest Stewardship Council."

"This benchmark remains a great big step backwards at a time when the adoption of FSC´s high standards for forest and (forest product) certification is exploding in North America," Brinkema said in an e-mail to ProSales. He estimated that 120 million acres of U.S. and Canadian forestland is certified to FSC standards, and 4,800 U.S. and Canadian companies--40% of them in the building materials industry--are certified to trade in FSC products. (In contrast, SFI claims close to 200 million acres in North America are certified to its standard, and another 183 million more acres are certified to CSA and ATFS combined.

Given how fixed these groups' positions remain since their comments on the third draft, odds are slim that USGBC will be able to win over all sides as it continues its multiyear struggle to win consensus regarding how it gives points in its various LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification programs for the use of wood. At present, only FSC-certified lumber qualifies for points in the system used to determine whether a project merits LEED status. Many North American timber operations prefer the certication schemes run by the other groups, and they've pushed for years to get the other certifications recognized by USGBC for LEED points.

Wood certification has been one of the most contentious issues USGBC has grappled with over the years, even though the head of the USGBC committee charged with managing the question has told ProSales the fight is "totally out of proportion to its importance" in the overall green building movement (story). In fact, SFI--created primarily by the timber industry, but now an independent organization--has stepped up its campaign to get USGBC to open the certification scheme, organizing among other things an online petition. Meanwhile, lobbyists have been urging members of Congress to write USGBC on the same issue, just as three members of Arkansas' delegation did in April (story).

Much of the fight over this and previous drafts concerns the governance structures of the groups seeking to have their wood certification schemes deemed eligible for awarding LEED points. For instance, the latest draft adds language requiring that the entity responsible for the certification scheme must make its sources of funding publicly available. It also requires the certifying groups to solicit input on their standards "from a broad range of environmental, social, and economic interests" and make its drafts available for public comment. Approved standards can have no more than a five-year lifespan before coming up for review, and the governing body of the entity responsible for the certigication system must be elected by the system's measurements. USGBC said all these changes were made in order to more closely mimic the council's own governance structures and processes.

The major change to standards involving forest management are a toughening of the draft's sections on tree plantations. In broad terms, environmental groups dislike tree farms because they say the farms reduce ecological diversity. The draft now requires that wood certification systems mandate the retention of "stand-level wildlife habitat elements." It also removes an option and instead now requires that "there are demonstrated efforts, guided by long-term planning, to restore the plantation area to natural forest conditions."

While those changes don't affect building material dealers directly, additional language proposed to the section on chain of custody and labeling could have an impact. That new language requires certification systems to conduct risk assessments to determine the prevalence of illegal logging.

"SFI has cautioned the USGBC that a process like the one currently proposed could result in never ending revisions, assessments and evaluations year after year with no clear results." SFI president and CEO Kathy Abusow said in the June 15 statement. "It is time for USGBC's leadership to move on and give credit for wood use and forest certification standards. That is what SFI says, what government agencies say, and what professional foresters and their societies and institutes believe."

Comments on this draft began being accepted on June 14 are due July 4. Once the USGBC's panel finishes its work, the proposed revisions would be submitted to the USGBC membership for a vote.