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Protecting the environment by providing legal services for forest cases of statewide significance

Protecting the environment by providing legal services for forest cases of statewide significance.

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A Statement From WFLC Director Peter Goldman

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September 10, 2009

Why Have We Taken On SFI?

Peter Goldman

What is the Washington Forest Law Center (WFLC), a public interest environmental law firm, whose mission is protecting millions of acres of Northwest forests, doing in the middle of the battle over “green” certification for wood and timber products?

Simple—the battle over what’s required for a credible forest certification system will have an extraordinary impact on how hundreds of millions of acres of North American forest land will be managed and logged for decades to come.  Will these forests be managed and harvested in a science-based, sustainable manner? 

We at the WFLC have been watching the forest certification debate for over 10 years.  To me, it is nothing less than spectacular to see consumers, companies, and governments demanding “green” building and paper products.   American consumers—and environmentalists—should be proud for finally arriving at a market-driven, non-regulatory system that protects both forests and the good jobs and habitat that they produce.

In Washington, we’ve seen the SFI-certified Weyerhaeuser Company log some of the last remaining occupied habitat on private land for the rapidly declining Northern Spotted Owl, a threatened species listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.  In a settlement of a federal Endangered Species Act lawsuit arising out of this logging, Weyerhaeuser agreed to maintain habitat around the four spotted owls that were the subject of the suit.

We’ve watched Plum Creek, a proclaimed SFI leader, clear-cut the heart of the central Cascades and sell their forests to land developers.  We’ve seen SFI-certified companies in Washington, Oregon, and California spray vast amounts of toxic forest chemicals over our rural communities.  And we’ve seen SFI-certified timber companies clear-cut mountainsides so steep and geologically unstable that the landslides from this logging contributed to major downstream damage and flooding.   

Should our system of fair trade and advertising allow this kind of forestry?  Is this the future of “sustainable” green forestry?  Should a green label allow deception? We hope not.

After three years of legal and factual research, we and our partners have concluded that the SFI is a timber industry-financed, governed, and operated certification entity that is deceiving and misleading wood and paper consumers—and taxpayers.  We think it’s time for federal agencies, like the Federal Trade Commission and the Internal Revenue Service, to investigate SFI and take action. 

What SFI deception are we asking the FTC to investigate?  SFI claims that it is an “independent public charity” but it is financed and substantially governed by the timber and paper companies it certifies.  SFI claims its standards are set by a balanced group of stakeholders but, in reality, its standard-setting process is dominated by persons affiliated with timber companies.  SFI claims its standards are second to none but, in reality, SFI’s “standards” are not measurable, quantifiable, or even verifiable; they are vague, ambiguous, and filled with loopholes.  And SFI markets a substantial amount of its forest products under its “Certified Fiber Sourcing” label, which is not even a guarantee of certification.  This is precisely the job of the FTC:  to protect consumers by preventing unfair and deceptive business practices.

Why have we reported SFI to the Internal Revenue Service?  Public charities are the cornerstone of American generosity and a catalyst for social change.  But it is fundamental that public charities serve public, not private, interests.  Don’t get us wrong:  protecting forests is a charitable endeavor.  But our investigation reveals that SFI is an industry-funded and operated “green” label.  It's standards are heavily tilted towards private interests.  When timber and paper companies collectively fund and operate a certification entity that is heavily tilted in favor of industry-preferred forest management, the entity crosses the line from being a public charity to a private label promotion system.  SFI also may not comply with the rules governing public charities, which require public charities to raise at least one-third of their revenue from public sources. 

The battle over what constitutes a credible forest certification system is reaching a fevered pitch on many fronts because the demand for “green” forest products is growing, as the September 11 New York Times story explains.  NOW is the time to get this right; so much is at stake for sustainable forestry and for the public’s right to have access to information for selecting forest products that deliver the environmental benefits the companies claim and the public interest expects.