The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) will begin collecting votes Oct. 25 on proposed language that would set standards on which groups' wood certification schemes will qualify for points in the USGBC's LEED program recognizing green construction. Ballots will be accepted until Nov. 23, and the council expects shortly afterward to announce results that are just about certain to displease several key groups that have fought for years over this issue.

Unlike most policy votes that USGBC takes, this one won't be decided by the council's 17,000 member companies. Rather, the votes will be cast only by a "consensus group" of USGBC members who got the chance to opt into the group this summer. USGBC officials then reviewed the consensus group to determine whether its membership was "balanced" (a term it has never comprehensively defined) across the three main USGBC member groups: users, general interest, and producers. USGBC has concluded that the group's membership is balanced, a USGBC spokesperson indicated Tuesday in an e-mail to ProSales.

"On Monday, Oct. 25, USGBC will begin the ballot of proposed credit language pertaining to how the LEED Green Building Rating System rewards the use of responsibly sourced forest products," the e-mail said. "The proposed credit language has been revised to base LEED credit eligibility on a benchmark which covers the Governance, Standards Substance, Chain of Custody and Labeling, and Accreditation and Certification Process attributes of forest certification programs and labels. The ballot period is open until Nov. 23. USGBC members who opted in to serve as members of the consensus body are eligible to vote. The consensus body is balanced across three USGBC member stakeholder groups: users, general interest and producers. Results of this USGBC member ballot will be released shortly after conclusion of the ballot period."

The consensus group will be voting on proposed language that sets benchmarks for any wood-certification group that would like to have its certification system qualify for LEED points. To date, only wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council qualifies for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) points. That irks organizations such as the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), Canadian Standards Association (CSA), American Tree Farm System (ATFS), and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes (PEFC), which all argue that certification programs also should qualify.

That benchmark language--the fourth draft of a document that has been undergoing revisions for several years--was released on June 14 and quickly was assailed from opposite sides by two of the most vocal groups in the fight. As with the three previous drafts, SFI led the roster of groups complaining that USGBC's standards were jury-rigged in such a way to as to bar any group other than FSC from qualifying.

SFI--which was founded by forestry companies but now is an independent organization--also has complained that the USGBC panel writing the drafts regularly has ignored what SFI has submitted during the comment periods for the past three drafts regarding fundamental questions about forestry practices. These concerns drive deep into core issues, such as what makes a tree farm good or bad and whether genetic manipulation should be permitted.

Meanwhile, the U.S. branch of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSCUS) issued an open letter urging readers to tell USGBC that the fourth draft of its proposed forest certification benchmark "still falls far short of 'exemplary forestry' and permits certification systems to be dominated and controlled by proponents of status quo forestry." It also called a proposal "a substantial lowering of the bar compared with FSC's international Principles and Criteria and multi-stakeholder governance system,"

In that open letter, FSCUS warned that if the fourth draft of the benchmarks get put up for a vote, FSC would recommend a "no" vote.

Rather than working from within USGBC, SFI has relied heavily on generating pressure from outside on USGBC, such as from governors and members of Congress. It has argued that USGBC's latest proposal is written in such a way as to effectively blackball it and all other entities except FSC from ever winning approval as a LEED point-granting entity.

"It's time for the USGBC to sunset this lengthy benchmark process, and once and for all recognize all credible forest certification programs," an SFI newsletter this summer quotes SFI president and CEO Kathy Abusow as saying. "The rest of the world gets it--wood is a sound and responsible building material, and forest certification is an added proof point that forests are well managed. Less than 10% of forests are independently certified to internationally recognized standards. Recognizing all certification programs means more choices for builders and architects, and encourages responsible forestry globally."