Green Building Certification Just Got Less Green

Many Oregonians pride themselves on the state’s environmental record and ongoing sustainability efforts. One element of this commitment is demonstrated through the increasing popularity of green building standards that promote energy and resource-efficient projects. The US Green Building Council (USGBC), through its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Certification, is the most widely used rating system.

Unfortunately, thanks to some Oregon politicians and the timber industry, LEED Certification has become a little less green and a little more greenwashed.

LEED-certified buildings are awarded points for various aspects on their design and construction. Depending on the total points, projects can receive a designation of Certified, Silver, Gold, with a Platinum rating being the highest.  Points are awarded for, among other factors, energy efficiency, water conservation, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and sustainably sourced materials.

And it’s the sustainably sourced materials aspect of LEED that has made Oregon’s timber interests grouchy. You see, until recently, the US Green Building Council did not acknowledge a majority of the wood products from Oregon’s private forests as sustainable and ecologically friendly enough to warrant any points. This is because the program used by a majority of Oregon’s private forestland operators – The Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) – is by and large meaningless. Other certification programs, like those provided by the Forest Stewardship Council, work to prohibit harvest of rare old-growth forest, prevent loss of natural forest cover, and prohibit highly hazardous chemicals. These values are not required by SFI, which was crafted by the logging industry and designed to meet minimum state law requirements. Essentially, if you’re obeying the law, you get an SFI certification. And even if you break the law, SFI does not revoke its seal of approval, nor does it make any effort to authenticate or police SFI certified forest operations.

So, despite the fact that SFI and Oregon’s weak forest laws have contributed to over a half a million acres of deforestation since 2000, led to steep declines in wildlife populations, result in the regular contamination of drinking water, and have destroyed hundreds of miles of fish habitat, Oregon politicians like former-Governor John Kitzhaber and Congressman Kurt Schrader spent years trying to force the USGBC to lower its sustainability standards. The Oregon Forest Resource Institute (OFRI), the tax-funded pseudo-governmental propaganda arm of the clearcutting industry, lobbied for lower standards as well (although they don’t refer to it as lobbying because they are legally forbidden from doing so). 

While this effort has been cheered on by logging corporations, it has been very disturbing to smaller woodlot owners practicing actual sustainable forestry (which some now call ‘biodiverse forestry,’ recognizing the term ‘sustainable’ is being perverted by the clearcutting industry). These landowners have been working to find a way to balance stewardship with new, environmentally sensitive forestry techniques. A dumbing-down of green building standards would essentially push them out of a niche market, and eliminate their incentive to do the right thing.

Sadly, Oregon politicians finally prevailed over these small business owners and actual sustainability. Earlier this year, Rep. Kurt Schrader proudly announced LEED recognition of SFI

This was a missed opportunity. Rather than working with forestland owners to improve practices to better protect fish, wildlife, and clean drinking water, Oregon has championed lowering the bar. There are many forestland owners that would like to do the right thing, but the resources aren’t available to educate them. Some of OFRI’s budget currently used to run tax dollar-funded ads during the Superbowl could instead help foresters become enrolled in sustainability certification programs that take forest conservation more seriously.

When people see a LEED-certified building, they expect environmental leadership. Clearcut hillsides, poisoned drinking water, dead fish, and landslides are not leadership. SFI and Oregon’s weak logging rules are not leadership. Our state and our forests deserve better. Tell Rep. Kurt Schrader that LEED-certification must go beyond SFI and Oregon’s Forest Practices Act. Constituents can contact Rep. Schrader via his website. Others can leave a comment on his Facebook page.  

For more information, here is a comparison between FSC and SFI

Photo Credits: 
SFI clearcuts by Francis Eatherington