FSC and the nightmare vision of forestry in the US

This was sent by Jon Mohler, October 2006:

The West Coast Green homebuilding conference in San Francisco in September attracted 8,000 attendees, most of them groping toward a solution to this problem: Forty percent of world industrial output goes toward construction. The United States, for example, consumes 27% of the planet’s wood products, mostly for house construction. Most construction commodities receive little evaluation of their environmental impacts, and people at the conference were anxious for guidance.

Into the breach stepped the Rainforest Alliance (RA), headquartered in New York. At a seminar called “Keeping Wood Sustainable”, their spokesperson, Liza Murphy, proudly pointed out that her organization is often confused with Rainforest Action Network at these gatherings. What she didn’t say is that RA is supported by corporate donors and by its relationship with Smartwood, the Forest Stewardship Council certification body.

Murphy went on to sing the praises of FSC, implying that her organization was motivated by the desire to do good deeds. The standards were laid out: third party auditing, chain of custody rules, vociferously protected labels, and so on. Growing support for FSC was documented by news releases such as a new Home Depot program which includes a preferential buying policy for Smartwood and an EcoOption section in their stores. Other support in industry was indicated by the availability of preferential mortgages and brownie points from LEED, an organization set up to evaluate the environmental footprint of buildings. It was never mentioned that there had ever been a problem with an FSC certified operation, so it became clear that this entire presentation was a PR exercise.

Then came the bombshell: FSC certified 12 million acres of forest in the United States in 2003. The number now is 60 million acres, a fivefold increase. They plan to certify 160 million acres of American timber operations by 2010, and 250 million acres worldwide. It is obvious to anyone who understands conditions on the ground that the human and technical resources to support this level of expansion are not there – even if their methodology were valid, which it is not. Some years ago a biologist told me that maybe 5% of Northwest forests are being managed sustainably. With the same economic forces in play, quintupling that number in a few years is an impossibility.

Given the well documented inability of FSC to implement sustainable forestry in the past, this giant expansion can have only one source: the major American timber companies. In internal documents (such as Productivity of Western Forests, PNW-GTR-642, USDA) they concede that they have lost the public relations battle: builders and the public are never going to go along with the industry’s proclamations about sustainable forestry. Too many of us have actually spent time in the woods, or flown over what is left of them. Their strategy is ingenious: throw the environmentalists a bone with FSC, provide cover via the Rainforest Alliance and many other organizations, and go back to business as usual.

The result will be continued acceleration of primary forest destruction and massive consumption of timber products. The US Forest Service predicts decreased diameter of industrially produced trees in the next 50 years, but there are also reasons to question whether industrial tree farms are viable at all for the long term on the Pacific Coast. Slopes are steep, soil thin, growing seasons short. With increasing temperatures – and feedback loops from clearcuts – mass deforestation of the Pacific forests, the largest per acre carbon sink in the world, may be arriving in a few decades.

Even people like Rainforest Action Network and Greenpeace are not challenging the US timber industry and its apologists on this, apparently believing that FSC is better than nothing, and resigning themselves to the relentless and pervasive clout of the timber industry. While they’re at it, perhaps they should run up the white flag against Massey Coal and Exxon Mobil. There is no difference between them and the timber companies. And environmentalists should all try to find a copy of a book called More Tree Talk: The author demonstrates how cut and run logging is inevitable. Investments in soil quality and long term sustainability of timber operations cannot be justified in any business model. The payoff is too far in the future, requiring a 4,000% return on investment, an obvious impossibility.

The best we can hope for is a true forestry standard, based on biology and enforced by government. FSC, with its myriad connections to industry and terrible track record, is an alternative that will doom our forests around the globe.

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