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Seattle Times: "Group fights Weyerhaeuser's use of 'green' certification"

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February 21, 2010 -- WFLC seeks to revoke Weyerhaeuser's SFI “green” certification for failure to protect water, soil and other resources. In a complaint filed last fall, WFLC alleges the company engaged in high-risk logging of unstable slopes—slopes that shed hundreds of landslides during an intense December 2007 rainstorm that triggered widespread downstream flooding.

The print advertisements tout green credentials. They depict a butterfly, frog and squirrel, and urge builders to "make a good impression on the planet" by choosing lumber and paper products certified by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) to meet rigorous environmental standards.

These SFI-certified forests include Weyerhaeuser lands in southwest Washington, where clear-cut slopes shed hundreds of landslides during an intense December 2007 rainstorm that triggered widespread downstream flooding.

The Seattle-based Washington Forest Law Center has made the clear-cuts a central part of a complaint that seeks to revoke Weyerhaeuser's SFI certification for failure to protect water, soil and other resources. The center alleges the company engaged in high-risk logging of unstable slopes, and that the subsequent slides worsened downstream flooding to homes, farms and businesses.

The complaint is part of a broader attempt by the law center to undermine the credibility of the SFI certification system, which was launched in 1994 by the American Forest & Paper Association and has evolved into an independent program that covers more than 170 million North American acres.

"SFI is a phony green label that is seriously misleading the marketplace," says Peter Goldman, a lawyer for the law center, which filed the complaint with SFI in the fall on behalf of the Sierra Club.

To bolster the challenge, Goldman commissioned Entrix, a Seattle-based environmental consulting firm, to evaluate the landslides. The Entrix report estimated that landslides dumped from 4.7 million to 9.4 million cubic yards of sediments into stream channels.

Weyerhaeuser officials say the SFI label is a legitimate guide for consumers who want sustainable forest products, and dismiss the law center's complaint as long on rhetoric and short on evidence. They say they followed the best management practices required by state forest rules when cutting the southwest Washington slopes, and that a company landslide study—now under peer review—concluded that the intense storm, not logging, was the primary cause of the landslides.

"Simply put, the extreme intensity of this storm made it unavoidable that numerous landslides were going to occur, particularly in the steep areas where rainfall greatly exceeded the 100-year return," Weyerhaeuser officials wrote in a rebuttal to the law center's complaint.

Goldman's challenge to the SFI label is part of an escalation in a long-running and increasingly high-stakes struggle for shares of the rapidly expanding market for "green" wood. The SFI label competes with the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification, which in the Northwest places tighter restrictions on clear-cutting unstable slopes and is backed by the Sierra Club and other major environmental groups.

"FSC sets a much higher bar," said Robert Hrubes, senior vice president of Scientific Certification Systems, which audits forestry companies for compliance with both the FSC and SFI standards.

Cassie Phillips, Weyerhaeuser's vice president of sustainable forests, said SFI standards are the same across North America, while FSC standards vary depending on the forests. She said that in some areas of the world, such as Russia, FSC standard are less stringent.

But currently, the FSC certification is the only label accepted by the widely recognized Leadership for Energy and Environmental Design standard that rates green construction, which is expected to claim a sizable share of the multibillion-dollar housing market in the next decade.

Goldman, a former King County senior deputy prosecuting attorney who founded the Washington Forest Law Center, also is trying to get federal agencies to take action against SFI.

The law center has asked the Internal Revenue Service to examine whether SFI should continue to be granted nonprofit tax status. The complaint argues that the SFI certification system's main goal is to serve the private interests of major timber and paper companies rather than a broader charitable goal of protecting the environment, and that it does not get diverse enough funding to meet IRS requirements.

In a separate complaint, the Federal Trade Commission was asked whether the organization has been engaged in deceptive advertising.

SFI officials say all lands that gain certification are inspected by independent auditors who verify the best management practices are used to protect streams, wildlife and other conservation resources.

"You could go through the complaint documents, and they are full of misstatements and misinformation," said Rick Cantrell, SFI's chief operating officer. "We don't agree with them at all."

Cantrell also notes that one of the SFI certification audits was conducted on Weyerhaeuser lands in July 2008, about half a year after the landslides into Stillman creek.

By then, the slides had helped trigger a high-profile debate about state policies that regulated clear-cut logging and prompted the State Department of Natural Resources to launch a review to see if any of those polices should be revised.

The SFI auditors who went to southwest Washington didn't find fault with Weyerhaeuser's practices. The audit team included an expert who reviewed Weyerhaeuser's soil-stability evaluations and found that the company effectively carried out all SFI certification requirements.