Page N2.2 . 21 October 2009                     
ArchitectureWeek - News Department
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High Tension over Big Timber


SFI is one of a number of programs that claim to certify products as environmentally friendly, or, in the case of timber companies, attest that the forests they operate are well-managed to ensure long-term "health" or "sustainability." SFI was started in the mid-1990s by the American Forest & Paper Association, a timber industry trade group, and spun off from the trade association two years ago.

SFI was created as an industry response to the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the environmental leader in the wood certification business. FSC was formed in 1993 by a combination of environmental groups, grassroots social organizations, and industry representatives to address rampant worldwide deforestation. (See FSC Versus SFI in ArchitectureWeek No. 439.)

In recent years, a growing number of companies have sought out various "green" labels used to woo environmentally concerned customers. But what constitutes sustainable forestry?

In the case of the massive 2007 slides in Washington, Weyerhaeuser has maintained that extreme weather was the principal cause of the landslides, and that the company could not have done anything to prevent the disaster. According to SFI's procedures, Weyerhaeuser has 45 days to respond to the Sierra Club's allegations, though an outcome could be months or years away in this high-stakes case about how the "green" certification organization polices its members.

Battle over "Green" Forestry

The Sierra Club's October 1, 2009 complaint is part of a wider struggle developing between supporters of SFI and those of FSC. The October 1 charges target Weyerhaeuser — which holds a seat on SFI's board — but also in the hot seat is SFI, an organization many environmentalists have decried as a front for big timber companies and the American Forest & Paper Association.

"If entire watersheds can be destroyed, certification doesn't mean anything," says Mark Lawler, a member of the Cascade Chapter of the Sierra Club. He says the 2007 disaster in his home state has "crystallized" the issues he and other critics have with the SFI system. Lawler concedes that the Sierra Club's complaint is put forward largely in (indirect) defense of FSC, which the Sierra Club helped establish.

FSC is widely considered the gold standard in forest management certification. While it has experienced rapid growth in recent years, FSC has struggled to convince U.S. forest owners to adopt its more-stringent rules. According to a report from the Yale Program on Forest Policy and Governance, less than 5 percent of the wood products on the U.S. market are FSC-certified. This relative scarcity of supply has limited the group's ability to capitalize on growing consumer demand for eco-friendly products.

SFI has expanded acreage more quickly for its program, which is easier and less costly for timberland owners to adopt, according to experts with the Yale program and others.

The Sierra Club's move is the third public relations strike against SFI in less than a month. In September, another environmental group, ForestEthics, filed an administrative complaint against SFI with Federal Trade Commission, and another with the Internal Revenue Service. The FTC filing accuses SFI of false advertising and deceptive trade practices designed to mask its links to the forest industry and confuse consumers, while the IRS complaint questions SFI's status as a nonprofit charitable organization.

And on October 21, a coalition of logging companies and forest owners, including Weyerhaeuser, shot back with its own complaint to the FTC, accusing both the FSC and the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) with conspiring to prevent SFI and other "green" forest certification programs from competing in the growing green building market.

The Sierra Club's recent complaint to SFI, meanwhile, will test the organization's willingness and ability to enforce its stated certification standards on companies using its label.

"For certifications to mean something to the consumer, there have to be real consequences for companies that don't comply," Lawler says. "I think they are obligated to fully investigate the complaint. If they don't, it really calls into question why they exist."

SFI President and CEO Kathy Abusow says the complaint will receive a thorough review. "We believe every credible certification program must have a credible complaint process," she says.

How Intense a Storm?

Weyerhaeuser officials are confident that by SFI's mid-November response deadline, the company will be able to show that the intensity of the 2007 storm was the most important factor causing the slides. "This was a level of precipitation that had not been experienced in modern or historical times. It was a record-breaker," said Kevin Godbout, Weyerhaeuser's director of external regulatory affairs. He called the December 2007 rains "a 500-year storm event."

But the storm's intensity is a matter of contention. Weyerhaeuser officials have said that rain gages on company property recorded nearly 20 inches (51 centimeters) of rain. But independent experts recorded much lower rainfall data nearby. At the state senate hearings in early 2008, a state climatologist testified that only 4 to 7 inches (10 to 18 centimeters) of rain were recorded at elevations below the Weyerhaeuser lands and that the storm hadn't come close to breaking records, according to reporting by the Seattle Times.

David Montgomery, a professor of geomorphology at the University of Washington, also questioned whether the precipitation alone could explain the extent of the damage wrought by the storm.

"What this issue really puts in the spotlight for me is not the practices of a particular company. It's the idea that you could remove all the trees off of a very steep, slide-prone slope over a 30- to 50-year rotation and expect it to be sustainable in any geological sense. That's a very bad joke," Montgomery says. "We know that it [clear-cutting] should increase the risks" of landslides, he says. "The question is: what's an acceptable risk?"

Montgomery, a 2008 McArthur Fellow, who has read the Sierra Club's report authored by ENTRIX, a scientific consulting firm, but had no part in drafting the complaint, says the amount of rain didn't appear as remarkable as the extent of the landslides it provoked.

"While the total amount of rainfall, and the resulting flooding, were indeed impressive, the rainfall recurrence intervals of 50 years or less reported for this storm by ENTRIX doesn't make this storm appear to have been an unimaginable event," Montgomery says. "Could it be telling us something when the landscape has a 500-year response to an apparently 50-year event?"

The Sierra Club Complaint

A principal argument of the Sierra Club's complaint to SFI is that precipitation alone wasn't the sole cause of the devastation. Rather, the complaint alleges that large-scale clear-cutting and other logging practices on the steep up-mountain terrain had left behind eroded soils and discarded timber and other logging debris that were carried away by the rainfall, increasing the impact of the flooding and landslides. According to ENTRIX, there was "strong evidence" suggesting much of the wood and debris that ended up covering valleys below had been carried away by slides on hundreds of acres of logging land.   >>>

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Flooding of the Chehalis River in December 2007 threatened buildings and blocked a major interstate highway (I-5) near Centralia, Washington.
Photo: Courtesy Washington State Department of Transportation Extra Large Image

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Recently clear-cut sites in the Stillman Creek area of the Chehalis River watershed experienced landslides in December 2007.
Photo: Courtesy Washington State Dept. of Natural Resources (DNR)

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Small-scale mudslides near Stillman Creek.
Photo: Courtesy Washington State DNR

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Aerial photo depicting landslides in December 2007, as documented by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.
Image: Washington State DNR

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Satellite imagery shows the extent of clear-cutting throughout the Chehalis River watershed and surrounding forest lands in southwestern Washington.
Image: Courtesy Google Maps Extra Large Image

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Copy of the 1994 Weyerhaeuser watershed analysis for the Stillman Creek Watershed Administrative Unit, indicating no unstable slopes were found.
Image: Courtesy Sierra Club Extra Large Image

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Map documenting a December 2007 landslide across State Road 6, near Pe Ell, Washington.
Image: Washington State DNR Extra Large Image

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Debris slides and debris flows along the ridge separating Stillman Creek and Little Mill Creek, near their confluence.
Photo: Courtesy Washington State DNR


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