The U.S. Green Building Council is being applauded for the release last week of the new pilot credit intended “to reduce the risk that illegally sourced, harvested or traded wood products are used in building.”

The LEED BD+C: New Construction v4 MRpc127 – Timber Traceability pilot credit “is designed to up efforts to eliminate the use of illegal wood in buildings.”

There may be no single subject matter more discussed with over the more than 20 year history of LEED than forest product certification. That this new pilot credit continues the discussion of trees is positive.

But make no mistake, this new alternative compliance path credit does not alter the existing LEED credit, NC-v4 MRc3: Building product disclosure and optimization – sourcing of raw material, that requires,

Wood products must be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council or USGBC-approved equivalent.

This new pilot credit also leaves in place the 2016 pilot credit MRpc102 Legal Wood, that despite all the discussion has not been a market mover. The vast majority of LEED buildings have not pursued wood related credits.

The requirements for the new pilot credit are complex and include,

Project teams shall identify the country of harvest and wood species (scientific name) for all wood products that are not reclaimed, salvaged or reused.

..  wood products must constitute at least 5%, by cost, of the total value of permanently installed building products in the project or be valued at a minimum of $100,000.

At least 50%, by cost, of the permanently installed wood products must meet one of the following traceability/transparency requirements.

Low threshold: Samples of the product shall be tested using wood identification technology .. Samples shall be accompanied by a map, or maps, of the “supply area(s)” of origin. Products that meet the low threshold are worth 100% of their base contributing cost.

Medium threshold: Samples of the product shall be tested .. Samples shall be accompanied by a map of the Forest Management Unit of origin. Products that meet the medium threshold are worth 150% of their base contributing cost.

High threshold: In addition to meeting the requirements of one of the preceding thresholds, the product shall be tested and the test results shall corroborate both the declared species as well as the origin of the product. Products that meet the high threshold are worth 200% of their base contributing cost.

Samples of wood products or components that originate in countries with elevated risk of illegal logging and/or trade .. shall be tested and the results shall not contradict the declared species and origin. In addition, each product and/or component must be backed by one of the following requirements:

Certified to FSC, SFI or PEFC standards.

Certified by a third-party legality verification program (see Annex 3).

Documentary proof that the products are backed by a FLEGT license accepted under the European Union Timber Regulation.

A Convention on Trade in Endangered Species permit shall be provided for all wood products containing or composed of species listed ..

The entire credit can be accessed from this link. And there is a USGBC issued guidance. Among the knocks on LEED v4 is that credits are too complex and require time, effort and cost to comply with that exceed the efficacy of the credit; and many will conclude this is such a credit.

In the announcement of this pilot credit, Mahesh Ramanujam, president & CEO of USGBC, said, “The Timber Traceability pilot credit continues USGBC’s work to leverage LEED’s market transformation potential in areas critically important to the quality of life of all people on earth.” Admittedly, this pilot credit cannot yet [reasonably] be achieved, the underlying science has not yet been deployed. USGBC is out in front and creating the market.

And despite what you think you read in this pilot credit language USGBC has not approved an “equivalent” to FSC certified wood [.. although USGBC has apparently given tacit approval to PEFC, as equivalent]. What USGBC apparently did was include a new temporary alternative compliance path for the purpose of this credit.

The failure to act boldly in the face of the vestiges of the FSC only wood practices of USGBC, is significant in that this new pilot credit will not end the “wood wars” nor result in repeal of Maryland’s longstanding statute, Maryland Tax Property Article, Section 9-242, not permitting any LEED wood credit to be pursued in government projects or other projects seeking LEED based tax incentives; and this will not repeal similar statues and executive orders in Maine, Georgia and elsewhere. So, as written, this pilot credit is a huge missed opportunity in increasing LEED market share.

However, the real concern over this new illegal wood pilot credit is that it is not actually about “illegal wood” but rather is about a small subset of wood from trees managed under some forest certification system.

Wood that is not certified as managed is not illegal. It is simply not from a managed tree.

That distinction is huge because the relevant ASTM D7612 – 2015 standard makes clear that “forest certification is still a small fraction of total forest acreage” going on to describe that only 10% of forests are certified. Again, that does not mean that wood from the other 90% of forests is illegal or somehow not legal nor good wood, but rather only that it is not from a certified forest.

The same will be true in the future. Trees not in a tree DNA database (that is owned by wealthy North American interests) will not be illegal, they will simply not be in some proprietary database.

It is suggested this new pilot credit is really today about competing business interests and their forest management practices and tomorrow about USGBC choosing winners and losers in who will own and monetize futuristic tree DNA databases. Forests can be managed across a broad spectrum of philosophies from high-yield “crop style” plantations at one extreme to parks and preserves at the other. The Weyerhaeuser Company has planted far more than one billion trees in the past 10 years and that it is forests like those where most U.S. certified wood comes from (100% of their North American timberland is SFI certified).

Again, this is really today about certified versus not certified outside of the U.S. and in the future about trees tracked DNA databases that today do not even exist and may never exist. There are existing U.S. laws including the Lacey Act to prohibit illegal forest products. Section 8204 of that Act as amended in 2008 is titled “Prevention of Illegal Logging Practices.” That Act provides the legal authority to take action when products stemming from the practice of illegal logging enter the U.S. Declaration forms are required for all forest products imported into the U.S. including that specify the country of origin. The European Union has similar timber regulation.

But the same may not be true elsewhere and this is problematic as USGBC tries to craft one LEED rating system for the entire planet. This pilot credit may be efficacious elsewhere, for example in India. Russia has the second largest quantity of FSC certified wood in the world (after Canada), but 25% of Russia’s timber exports have been characterized as originating from illegal logging, including that the Russiapedia of Russian origin Taiga (an area of more than 20% of the planet’s forested land) and the FSC logo are being misused; although this pilot credit will have no measurable impact on that.

Across the globe, an estimated more than 2.8 billion residents, mostly from poor and developing countries gather and burn wood “illegally” (.. really?) for fuel to keep warm and cook food. Subsistence wood simply does not find its way into LEED buildings in the U.S.

Which makes the statement released in conjunction with this pilot credit, “If you want good wood, you need to start with honest wood,” by Alexander von Bismarck, executive director of the Environmental Investigation Agency, sound elitist at best and silly at worst.

So, is an illegal wood credit a misnomer? USGBC should be acknowledged for this pilot credit that will promote the growth of responsible forest management. But there is a real concern if any marketing claims related to this credit are accurate, verifiable, relevant and not misleading, including that marketing this credit has been achieved is in compliance with the Federal Trade Commission’s Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims and other state consumer protection laws.

Additionally, recall that the U.S. Green Building Council was originally named the U.S. Green Manufacturers Council reflecting that the target members were building product manufacturers. Given the increased emphasis, some more than 20 years later, on building materials, that name change provides very real insight into why this credit, now, and the future of the organization. But it portends transparency that does not exist. Who paid for this pilot credit to be developed? What agreements exist with the many other trade groups and standards associations related to this pilot credit? How much money has and will pass hands between this coterie?

All of that observed, the Timber Traceability pilot credit is a positive step forward in 2019, much like this year’s boot-cut jeans versus last year’s edited baby genes.

USGBC should be applauded. Voluntary forest certification systems have become important in promoting sustainable forestry. The forest management standards in use are highly variable, however. Even within a family of standards with a common label there is the potential for wide variations in practices, especially from country to country which prevents erectors of buildings and other consumers from specifying a certification label to characterize products according to a specific set of qualities or values. This pilot credit creates a framework to differentiate products based on a set of qualities and values identified as important in the market for wood products.