E&E News: Timber interests cheer Senate energy bill provision

Energy legislation awaiting action in the Senate could boost timber interests trying to gain more business on federal construction projects.

The bill, S. 1460, proposed in late June by Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), calls on the Energy Department to honor four industry-sponsored certification systems for sustainable forestry in "green" construction.

That's more than U.S. EPA accepts for its green-building certification, and industry groups say the provision could help pave the way to much more timber becoming available for such projects.

At issue is a dispute that's been brewing since 2015, when EPA said it would accept only timber certified through the Forest Stewardship Council for its preferred green program.

That excludes around 95 percent of U.S. timber, according to the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, one of the certification programs EPA sidelined.

EPA also doesn't recognize the American Tree Farm System, sponsored by the American Forest Foundation. The American Tree Farm System is geared toward smaller, family-run forests, according to the organization.

The AFF's vice president for woodlands, Rita Hite, said in a statement that the provision would help support tree farmers who manage their forests sustainably.

"This is an incredible move forward," Hite said.

Murkowski's bill, which Senate leaders have been looking to take up before their August recess, includes those certification programs, as well as the Geneva-based Programme for Endorsement of Forest Certification.

The certification systems aren't identical, but they each encourage water conservation, replanting and other principles, and they've won praise from the Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service.

In addition, the U.S. Green Building Council in April 2016 said it would recognize the American Tree Farm System and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative in its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design building rating system. The Green Building Council previously recognized only the Forest Stewardship Council.

In response to the energy bill language, the Forest Stewardship Council pointed to a January statement from Corey Brinkema, the group's president.

"The American Tree Farm System is one of the oldest and far-reaching landowner programs and we respect all they have done for family woodlands in the United States," he said. "To decide whether FSC, Tree Farm or any other program should be included in the green procurement recommendation, the EPA has a responsibility to follow a rigorous science-based process that ensures the standards chosen meet their performance objectives."

While Murkowski's bill covers the Energy Department specifically, advocates say they hope it will prod a similar approach at EPA, where Administrator Scott Pruitt has said the matter is under review.

"What we'd like to see is consistency across federal agencies," said Nadine Block, chief operating officer and senior vice president of public affairs at the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (Greenwire, Jan. 20).

In Congress, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) has emerged as an outspoken advocate for broader certification. Earlier this year, he questioned Pruitt on the issue, saying the more restrictive standard discriminates against domestic U.S. wood supplies.

Mississippi has about 18.6 million acres of forest — more than 60 percent of the state's land area — and the timber industry has an economic impact of $14.8 billion a year, according to the Mississippi State University Extension Service.

By:  Marc Heller
Source: E&E News