Will It Be `Timber!' For Green Logs?

Ecologically certified wood may run afoul of free-trade laws

As president of States Industries Inc., a Eugene (Ore.)-based company with annual sales of $90 million in hardwood panels and plywood, Diane Montoya didn't worry much about the environmental impact of her timber purchases--until her children expressed their concern.

So in August, Montoya joined the Certified Forest Products Council, an organization that promotes the purchase of timber harvested in an environmentally sound way--that is, timber from trees cut selectively to allow sustainable, long-term harvests. Montoya has now shifted some of her purchases to certified wood, easing her children's anxiety. Such voluntary efforts are leading to a growing market for certified wood. The problem, however, is that efforts by governments to require purchases of certified wood could, according to the World Trade Organization, be construed as barriers to free trade.

Some environmentalists are concerned that international trade agreements could threaten national sovereignty, interfering with consumers' right to make environmentally friendly choices--such as buying certified wood. The U.S. got a sample of the WTO's environmental clout in the spring, when the U.S. tried to block imports of shrimp unless they were caught in nets designed to protect endangered sea turtles. The WTO said the U.S. must allow the imports.

POOR SCIENCE? The conflict is likely to arise again with timber certification. So far, trade in certified timber is small. There are just 25 million acres of certified forests worldwide, and "green" forest products represent less than 1% of the total market. But large suppliers are getting involved. Three major producers--MacMillan Bloedel, Interfor, and Western Forest Products, all in British Columbia and all criticized for clear-cutting old-growth forests--recently said they intended to seek certification.

Elizabeth M. Pease of the International Wood Products Assn., whose members are responsible for about 80% of U.S. tropical hardwood imports, says the supply of certified wood is limited and too expensive to merit serious industry attention. But Sandy Mendler, an architect in the Washington office of HOK, one of the country's largest architectural firms, disagrees: "The supply is much better than it was a few years ago," she says. "I have very little sympathy for people who say it is too difficult."

Pease's other criticism is harder to dismiss: She says timber certification is based on poor science--that researchers do not agree on how to manage forests to assure sustainable harvests. Indeed, in one study, Ian A. Bowles and Richard E. Rice of the Washington-based environmental group Conservation International determined that sustainable logging in a Bolivian forest was not very lucrative and did not protect many species. They say the same may be true for other tropical forests. (The two back timber certification in some temperate regions where sustainable forestry seems likely to succeed.)

The larger issue, however, is whether timber certification poses a barrier to trade. According to the WTO's Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade, countries cannot discriminate against "like" products based on how they were produced. In other words, because a mahogany two-by-four from a well-managed forest looks like a mahogany two-by-four from a clear-cut forest, the two are the same in the eyes of trade law.

"What the trade system has done is draw a very broad line in the wrong place: In many cases, these products are not the same," says Matthew Stilwell, an attorney with the Center for International Environmental Law in Washington. "We need a much more nuanced approach." Some other lawyers say they believe certification doesn't pose a barrier to trade because labeling is voluntary and standards are developed in an open process.

As timber certification gains momentum, it is eliciting more industry opposition. For instance, when the New York City Council, the Los Angeles City Council, and the California State Senate recently considered bills requiring government purchase of certified wood, they were all warned--by Pease's group or by the Canadian Consulate--of a possible trade violation.

In the absence of a formal dispute, the WTO is reviewing the regulations, says Doaa Abdel-Montaal oF the WTO's trade and environment division. Whatever the WTO ultimately decides, timber certification alone will not save the world's forests. Only 22% of the world's forests remain intact and in large tracts, according to the World Resources Institute. And the current global economic crisis is putting increasing pressure on cash-starved developing countries to sell their trees. When they look at forests, they see glimmers of another kind of green.

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