Movement in the years-long tug-of-war over green certification for lumber is better measured in inches than in yards. So it is this month with several groups' announcements and replies involving whether the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) is inching closer to letting any wood other than that certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) become eligible for points under the LEED rating system.

Organizations such as the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), Green Globes, the American Tree Farm System (ATFS) and the National Lumber and Building Material Dealers Association (NLBMDA) all put out press releases hailing USGBC's announcement that it will pilot an "Alternative Compliance Path (ACP) credit" to its LEED system "by promoting the use of wood that is verified to be legal." This alternative path would in effect give LEED credit for projects in which the framing lumber being used is verified as being from legal sources as defined by a standard issued by ASTM, an internationally recognized standard-setting body.

Wood certified by SFI, ATFS, FSC, and the European-based Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) all are recognized by ASTM. But currently, only FSC-certified wood wins builders a LEED point. This shutout has long angered the other groups, particularly because far more lumber in North America is certified by SFI and ATFS than by FSC. The distinction doesn't matter for most construction, in part because few home builders seek LEED certification and because there are numerous other ways for commercial builders to get enough points for LEED status. But some states and local governments that push green projects have in effect made FSC lumber the only wood that can be used.

While USGBC's announcement of the pilot program focused on supporting architects and builders to "proactively verify that the wood they are using is legal," SFI and other groups often saw the news as a way to sell more into the green market. "The acceptance of more responsibly sourced forest products into all LEED rating tools offers architects and builders greater access to these renewable products for their green building projects," SFI said in a news release. Likewise, ATFS' announcement said the news "levels the playing field" among the competing groups. "With more than 80 million acres certified by ATFS and SFI in the U.S., and only 33 million acres certified by FSC, opening LEED to ATFS and SFI means more American-grown wood products can be used," it said.

Meanwhile, NLBMDA president and CEO Jonathan Paine said in an announcement that his group "continue[s] to call on USGBC to complete the important step it has taken with ACP and adopt a stance of neutrality in LEED relative to all valid forest management programs in the North American market."

FSC's U.S. branch has a much different opinion.

"FSC strongly supports efforts to screen out illegal forest products from the LEED program by making legality verification a prerequisite," the group declared in an April 14 notice. "But legal forestry is not the same as responsible forest management, and it should not be enough to meet credit requirements in LEED.

"LEED was designed to transform markets and drive higher levels of environmental performance," FSC continued. "Requiring legal forest products as a prerequisite is an important step in the right direction. But providing a credit for legal forestry in LEED, especially one that replaces high standards and responsible forest management, is irresponsible, damaging to USGBC’s credibility and a black mark against the LEED program."

FSC urged that interested parties write to USGBC and urge that the pilot program be limited to no more than 100 LEED projects. It stressed that USGBC puts all major decisions to a vote of its members, so this issue ultimately is likely to come up before the entire membership. "The pilot ACP raises serious concerns –- both in its substance and in the closed-door process used to develop it ..." FSC wrote.