The two major green certification groups for lumber are continuing to attack--for much different reasons--the U.S. Green Building Council's (USGBC) third attempt to create a system by which multiple wood certification schemes would qualify for points under the LEED rating system.

The comments by the Forest Stewardship Council's U.S. branch (FSC-US) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) echoed previous stated views about the certification issue that suggest USGBC has no hope of satisfying everyone on this long-running, hotly contested issue, despite its recent attempt to resolve some concerns that both sides raised.

"We at the Forest Stewardship Council would like to see the USGBC complete and approve a strong benchmark and related ... credit revisions that reward forest managers who practice truly exemplary forestry," FSC-US President Corey Brinkema wrote on March 10. "Regrettably, this draft does not achieve that."

As for SFI, "it appears that the USGBC ... is set to continue with the status quo policy of excluding forest certification standards other than the FSC," SFI president and CEO Kathy Abusow said. "... If the USGBC maintains the status quo and does not recognize the SFI standards, many LEED builders who chase points will turn away reputable third-party certified SFI wood which is grown in their backyard, in the U.S. and Canada, and instead turn to FSC-certified wood--the vast majority of the FSC's global supply comes from overseas and often from countries without effective social laws."

At issue is the way USGBC 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 deserves LEED status. Many North American timber operations prefer the certication schemes run by SFI, the Canadian Standards Association (CSA), and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), and they've pushed for years to get their certifications recognized by USGBC for LEED points.

USGBC has been working since 2006 to come up with new language that replaces its FSC-only preference with verbiage that would make it possible for any certification scheme that meets certain benchmarks to have its certification qualify 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)

On Feb. 22, it opened a third public comment period for its latest proposal. That comment period ends March 14.

USGBC revised several proposals that drew fire from the 1,200 participaints in its second public comment period. (See story.) For instance, it no longer requires that the governing body of a certification group allocate no more than a third of its votes to governmental or for-profit forest owners, producers, and other commercially involved entities. It also knocked out a requirement that any decision approved must get supported by a majority of the board's members representing environmental, social, and economic interests.

However, the differences in philosophies that drive these various groups--differences that range from who runs the certification groups to what constitute good forestry--also make it virtually impossible for USGBC to satisfy everyone.

Among its comments, FSC-US disliked how the proposal eliminated the need to go beyond what USGBC required as prerequisites for any certification scheme and get at least 40% of what USGBC identified as optional credits. "This change is a substantial lowering of the bar without any explanation," FSC-US said. It also said USGBC's rules would recognize governance models for certification groups that don't encourage transparency, and said USGC "still fails to make prerequisite critical protections for indigenous peoples."

SFI's statement took issue with what USGBC failed to do once it got the last round of comments. "During the September 2009 comment period, the USGBC put forward 80 individual benchmarks in its second draft," SFI said. "SFI submitted comments on a significant number of these benchmarks. In the current and third draft, only five of the benchmarks are up for review, which suggests only five of the benchmarks were changed. The other 75 are not available for comment, and the USGBC has not provided any rationale for why it has not addressed the proposed changes to these benchmarks, instead providing casual responses such as "the requirements were deemed appropriate."

Once the USGBC's panel finishes its work, the proposed revisions would be submitted to the USGBC membership for a vote. That could happen later this year.