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December 13th, 2012 5:01 pm
New Studies Show Need For LEED Reform
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Earlier this year, we examined how land management regulations for our forests significantly alter economic activity in timber markets.  Since that time, more recent reports and studies underscore the importance of maintaining a level regulatory playing field, and how policies based on faulty assumptions can have economic and environmental consequences.

Specifically, forest certification programs like the American Tree Farm System (ATFS), Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) recognize when a landowner or business complies with benchmarks that signify responsible forest management.  Tree farmers and businesses seek “certification” from these groups to preserve their property and sell “green” goods in the market.  Numerous studies and testimony from land managers and conservationists support all three systems as beneficial to the environment.  However, environmental activists continue to pressure private companies and government officials nationwide to favor FSC over the other two programs, which themselves certify tens of millions more acres of forests in America than FSC.

Specifically, the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) LEED system only defines FSC-certified wood as sustainable.  As a result, SFI or ATFS timber cannot enter LEED projects, of which there are more than 13,000 nationwide.  The USGBC is nominally a nonprofit organization, but local, state and federal agencies accept its guidelines without question, and mandate them in building projects.

The National Legal Policy Center underscored the wrongheadedness of that framework in a recent white paper entitled “The Ethics of Forest Certification: When Unintended Consequences Result.” The paper explains the anti-competitive nature of the LEED system, and how it forces taxpayer dollars to finance projects to benefit a private organization – FSC – over its competitors.  Additionally, the paper questions whether consumers get a “bang for their buck” when they pay price premiums in excess of 15% for FSC wood.  These questions occur due to documentation of “clear-cuts” of forests on FSC-certified land overseas, and the fact that FSC recognizes 90% of its forests in countries outside the U.S. – many of them with lower environmental standards.

The American Consumer Institute published another study, “Comparing Forest Certification Standards in the U.S.,” which highlights how the actual practices of certification programs in the U.S. do not always match public perceptions.  The study shows auditors for FSC readily acknowledging discrepancies between FSC’s implementation on the ground, and how land managers and FSC differ on common definitions for forestry terms.   This confusion leads to companies “leaving clumps of unmerchantable trees in scattered areas, usually in riparian areas, draws and inaccessible corners” on FSC property in the southern U.S.”

Given the anti-competitive nature of the current LEED rating system, the negligible environmental benefits of an FSC-only regime and the misinformation resulting from these frameworks, the time is long overdue to support a level playing field that allows all certification programs to compete equally among consumers, businesses and foresters.

A freer market would be a better market.

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