Don White, president of Bangor-based Prentiss & Carlisle forest management company, has spent a career assessing the value in a stand of trees. Overseeing more than 1.5 million acres of woodland, White recently applied his critical eye toward a brewing controversy that is reviving an old argument between environmentalists and industrialists, touched off by a recent order from Gov. Paul LePage.
Intending to increase the amount of Maine wood products used in state construction projects, LePage in December ditched the requirement that all new or expanded state buildings under the executive branch be certified under the LEED green building standard, saying the LEED system's sole recognition of the Forest Stewardship Council's lumber certification process stifles competition in the lumber industry.
The executive order opens up eligibility to other forest certification programs, including the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, long regarded as FSC's second-rate cousin. The action has prompted charges of "greenwashing" against the administration, but some in the industry find the differences between the two standards to be increasingly negligible.
"If people gave it a good, hard look, I think they would find them both acceptable," says White of the competing certifications. The company currently certifies the forests under its management using the FSC standard, but as SFI continues to grow and shed its industry ties, White says the company is "now seriously looking at SFI.
"It's not so much that the standards have changed, but [SFI has] decoupled themselves from the industry and has some good people in leadership who have developed a very good program," says White.
The governor's order effectively bans most state building projects from seeking LEED certification, an action that is expected to affect only a handful of state building projects currently under construction. Because of that, the LEED ban is not likely to have an immediate major effect on the Maine forest products or construction industries, but White sees a certain intangible value to the order.
"It's more of the symbol of the thing. I don't know how much it will move the needle, but I certainly appreciate that [LePage] took the time to make note of it because occasionally the LEED standard is in conflict with what we believe," says White.
Nationally, over 1.6 million feet of space is certified to the LEED standard every day. In Maine, 12 state building projects, mostly university buildings, have earned LEED silver recognition or higher.
White hopes the order will help to change the industry perception of non-FSC certified wood, opening up the market and giving a boost to the construction medium as a whole. "It's an effort to show that wood is a good — a renewable — resource that people ought to pay attention to," he says.
Bill Beardsley, commissioner of the Maine Department of Conservation, says LEED's sole recognition of FSC was a "form of constrained trade that had very little to do with what is most environmentally friendly.
"We believe in free markets, and we'll limit [state projects] to wood supplies that are certified, but we won't say it's the one standard that's the favorite of one forest owner or environmental group," Beardsley says.
Established in 1993, the Forest Stewardship Council emerged from the 1992 World Summit in Rio de Janeiro where frustration over the inability to establish a global forest compact inspired loggers, foresters and environmentalists to form the council.
Today, more than 372 million acres of forests across 80 countries are certified under the FSC standard. In North America, 38% of all certified forests, some 142 million acres are FSC certified.
Based in Bonn, Germany, FSC operates as a decentralized network of national initiatives and regional offices that develop standards and promote FSC certification.
The Sustainable Forestry Initiative was launched in 1994 by the American Forest and Paper Association, representing approximately 80% of the U.S. pulp and paper industry. The certification only extends to the United States and Canada, where more than 184 million acres are certified to SFI standards.
In September 2000, the AF&PA spun off its SFI program as a separate entity. SFI incorporated as a nonprofit corporation in January 2002, earning 501(c)(3) status in September of that year.
SFI made a more formal break from its industry origins in 2007, reorganizing as SFI Inc. and instituting dues for membership that saw the nonprofit's budget rise from $676,000 in 2006 to $5.5 million in 2007.
But some say the AF&PA still exerts an inappropriate level of influence over SFI activities. In 2009, the Washington Forest Law Center filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service alleging that up to 80% of SFI's funds come from the pulp and paper industry. Federal tax law and regulations dictates that one-third of a nonprofit's funding must come from donations made by the general public.
An additional complaint filed by the WFLC with the Federal Trade Commission says SFI operated contrary to federal fair advertising laws in setting standards that were "deceptively vague, ambiguous, and riddled with qualifiers."
"We believe these 'standards' allow SFI forest managers to conduct environmentally harmful forestry while claiming their forestry practices are 'sustainable' and environmentally protective," reads the complaint filed with the FTC.
The dueling certification programs "address all the same items — soil, harvest levels, sustainability — but are really two different standards," says John McNulty, president of Seven Islands Land Co., a land and timber management holding company based in Bangor.
Whereas FSC lays out a very clear path for forest management, SFI sets comparatively vaguer objectives and leaves the specifics to forest management companies, according to McNulty.
"You have to build your own standard within the management system that demonstrates you've met that goal," says McNulty. "On the FSC side, it's more like 'you are going to manage like this'," he says.
For example, FSC certification requires forest managers to develop a plan for maintaining the ecological functions of the certified forests, as well as identifying, mapping and preserving high conservation value tracts. While SFI also calls for forest conservation, the standard lacks the same prescriptive requirements.
The more rigorous, ever-evolving FSC standard can have a negative effect on a company's bottom line, according to McNulty. "FSC is becoming somewhat of a more difficult standard because they are putting more emphasis on the social side and beefing up some areas on the environmental side that require a lot of extra work with little return," he says. Social components to the FSC standard address issues like community relations and workers' rights.
Anticipating the steady escalation of the two standards, Seven Islands decided to embrace both as a means of protecting its business. "You always want to have a fallback position if one becomes too onerous or unworkable," says McNulty.
As the president of a land and timber management company, McNulty says he is ever wary of "greenwashing" within the industry, but says the governor's order does not qualify as such. "I believe it has a positive impact in that, on a state policy level, it brings value to both systems," he says." SFI has worked hard to demonstrate that its standard has really come up. There is every reason in the world to support both systems."
The executive order also has the potential to give smaller landowners an incentive to seek certification.
"There also might be some landowners sitting on the [certification] fence saying 'We can see some value now'," says McNulty.
Small woodlot owners make up a significant portion of the state's wood supply with more than 100,000 lots across Maine. But they often don't seek certification for reasons of cost or convenience.
"For small woodlot owners, it might not make financial sense because [SFI and FSC] certification costs might outweigh benefits," says Katye Charette, executive director for the Maine chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council.
Instead, many small woodlot owners rely on the country's third certification standard, the American Tree Farm System, which is now an acceptable certification standard under the executive order. In place for over 70 years, the ATFS has certified more than 26 million acres of forestland.
Brad Kahn, communications director with the FSC, says Maine has long been seen as a leader in sustainable forestry practices, but now that could change.
"Some could argue that this is the very definition of greenwashing," he says of the governor's order.
The more rigorous FSC standard, which solicits feedback from a wider range of stakeholders than SFI, is the industry standard for a reason, according to Kahn. "At the end of the day, it means leaving more trees in the woods," he says.
By lowering the bar for state building projects, LePage has effectively opened up the market to timber managers less concerned with environmental sustainability than getting a "green" stamp of approval on one's product, Kahn says.
"To an extent, the governor's order allows any legal wood to qualify, but if you're going to call it 'green' you need to do more than follow the law," says Kahn. "We don't quibble with the laws of the state, but you don't get a green stamp for [following the law] in our book."
"There is a substantial amount of assurance and quality of care that comes with the FSC standard that is not necessarily equal to SFI," says Mike Pulaski, associate at Portland green building consulting firm Thornton Tomasetti.
The firm, which does sustainability consulting for architects and engineers, helps projects earn LEED and Living Building Challenge certification, both of which solely recognize the FSC standard.
Pulaski was one of more than 50 Maine professionals to sign a letter drafted by the U.S. Green Building Council's Maine chapter in opposition to the executive order. Other signatories include contractors, architects, designers and sustainability specialists like Pulaski.
"Our stance in opposition to the order is really about the sort of rigor that is behind the FSC standard and the assurance of quality," he says.
The executive order has already affected one of Thornton Tomasetti's projects, according to Pulaski. The firm helped the first phase of a state building project earn LEED certification, but the second and third phases will not be able to pursue the same recognition due to the executive order.
While Pulaski says the client plans on meeting all LEED standards in the forthcoming phases, an important superlative will be missing. "They won't be able to showcase that LEED plaque," he says.
LEED certification costs vary by size, but average around $2,000 with a $450-to-$650 registration fee.
"People can still choose to build green, but when you take away third-party verification, it's hard to know what you are getting," says Charette with the USGBC.
The state's departure from the LEED standard could affect public perception of green building. "It conveys a message that LEED and green buildings are bad for Maine, and that's not the real picture at all," she says.
Calling the order "short sighted," Charette says the credit earned under the LEED system for using FSC-certified lumber is a very small part of the standard — one point out of a possible 100 — while using locally sourced materials can earn a project up to two points. "These other credits can be so beneficial to Maine," Charette says.
FSC is generally accepted among environmentalists and sustainable design leaders as the only "credible standard," according to Kahn, who finds LePage's order suspicious given his own industry ties. "The appearance is that the forest products industry that supported him in his campaign [is] getting some sort of quid-pro-quo benefit by allowing all wood to qualify," he says.
Still, Charette says the SFI standard has made progress over the years and could one day enter the discussion as a complement to FSC under the LEED standard. "If we see SFI coming a long way and distancing itself from the industry, I'm certain it would," she says. "There is a need for standards to progress with time, and SFI is certainly doing that."
With the green label being thrown around so much these days, some wonder whether certification is worth pursuing as the market becomes inundated, and somewhat bored, with claims of sustainability.
McNulty, whose company manages land under FSC and SFI standards, says that one complaint common to both systems is their continuous raising of the bar. "You're always going after that marginal 5% of excellence and it can be quite demanding for no real financial return," he says.
Describing the tension between the supply and demand sides of Maine's forest products industry, McNulty says that Maine is a seller's market, making certification standards largely irrelevant. "The reason we got certified to begin with was to distinguish ourselves, but when everyone is certified it becomes a generic sort of quasi-regulation," he says.
In the past 20 years, the ownership profile of the Maine's forests has changed in a way that has encouraged certification, according to McNulty. As the state's large industrial landowners like International Paper and Boise Cascade edged out of the scene, private investment companies moved in and embraced certification as a means of setting themselves apart.
"They have a real need to be able to show investors they are sustainable, and that kind of changed the playing field," says McNulty.
He says he has become somewhat disillusioned with the trend of certification one-upmanship. "We've had discussions about why we are even doing this because when you change standards, the only one who bears the full burden is the landowner," he says.
Between hiring auditors, and drafting and implementing management plans, certification can become a costly task with lots of hidden costs appearing late in the process. "When you incorporate these standards into your management system, the operating costs sometimes don't show up for a year or so," McNulty says.
Weighing the cost and hassle of certification against the slim market advantage, McNulty provides a dim forecast for the future of certified lumber in Maine. "I can foresee a time in the future when the constant raising of the standards and expectations will become too much for landowners," he says.