Old-growth timber continues to find its way to local lumber yards.
Thursday, April 22, 1999
In theory, it''s easy enough to toe the forest conservation line by signing a petition to save an ancient forest, or by contributing money to the local tree-hugging action committee. But environmentally conscious home improvers may find it more difficult to practice what they preach.
When it comes to purchasing lumber for that redwood deck or cedar privacy fence, chances are your local lumber salesman doesn''t know if his product was harvested from a sustainably managed, second-growth forest, or clear-cut from a centuries-old native stand of redwoods.
Although Home Depot, the world''s largest home improvement retailer--and possibly the largest single retailer of old-growth rainforest wood and wood products on Earth--has come under intense fire from environmental groups(see Home Depot Sucks), it is not alone. Under current regulations, it is virtually impossible for consumers to know where their wood comes from. Lumber retailers generally don''t track their suppliers'' lumber practices, and depend on their vendors to be "responsible."
However, if they wanted to, says Chad Hanson, executive director of the John Muir Project, retailers could easily find out where their wood comes from. "They have the money and the resources to derive that information," he says. "If they felt it was affecting their bottom line, they''d find out."
The list of complaints against Home Depot includes selling lumber cut from old-growth rainforests, as well as selling tropical rainforest products such as luan, mahogany and ramin, imported from countries renowned for illegal logging and destruction of rainforests. Moreover, Home Depot carries redwood and cedar from North American temperate rainforests.
According to Home Depot spokesperson Amy Friend, it''s not possible for the company when purchasing wood to differentiate between old-growth and young lumber.
She says, since most of Home Depot''s wood is cut in the U.S. and the Canadian province of British Columbia, consumers can be "comfortable" in knowing that "there are really strict government regulations of how you have to manage your forest."
It''s an argument that''s mirrored by smaller retailers.
"I doubt any of our stores would have [old-growth wood]" says Michael Spengler, a corporate buyer with Monterey-based Hayward Lumber. "Our lumber comes from Canada, Washington, Oregon. Everyone is using sustained practices now. I know that I''m buying from responsible forest people. There is very little old growth being cut right now."
But old-growth trees are still being harvested in this country. "There isn''t any national law that says you can''t harvest old-growth forests," says Matt McGovern-Rowen of the Native Forest Network. "It''s very far from being illegal."
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and the US Forest Service require public and private forest lands to be managed in an ecologically sustainable manner. However, even with only 5 percent of the nation''s virgin forests remaining--mostly on national forest land--state and federal laws do not prohibit the harvesting of old-growth trees.
On non-federal commercial forest lands regulated by state agencies, the Forest Practice Act of 1973 requires only that harvesters "maintain threshold levels of...old-growth habitat." And, although the U.S. Forest Service reports that old-growth harvesting in national forests has been reduced 80 percent in the last decade, ancient trees continue to fall on public lands.
Moreover, environmentalists point out that the booming timber business in British Columbia is even less regulated. "Canada''s policies are much weaker," says McGovern-Rowen. "B.C. has old-growth temperate rainforests that are being forested faster than other forests in the world. And most of that timber is bought by the U.S."
Even the rules that do exist don''t always stop the chain-saw. For instance, Pacific Lumber, the harvester of the highly controversial Headwaters Forest in Northern California, has been caught violating the Forest Practice Act 325 times since 1995. Violations include illegal clearcutting of ecologically sensitive areas. But Pacific Lumber received only a slap on the hand from the state Department of Forestry by way of a four-month suspension of the company''s logging permit.
Home Depot, to their credit, has responded to environmental concerns by advocating a certification system in which suppliers are inspected and given a stamp of approval by a third-party independent inspector. Approved lumber carries a Certified Well-Managed label. Certification, according to Home Depot, "is based on sustaining parts of the forest, maintaining a balanced ecosystem for plants and wildlife, and benefiting people in the surrounding community."
However, the program is strictly voluntary, and Friend admits that only about 1 percent of Home Depot''s vendors are currently submitting to certification.
And environmentalists say that, similar to governmental regulations, such independent programs do not single out old-growth wood. "What I''ve seen so far in certification is they say this was logged in a sustainable fashion," says Hanson. "They don''t typically say anything about old growth."
Forest conservationists are counting on the passage of the National Forest Protection and Restoration Act, which was reintroduced to Congress last week, to protect some old-growth forests. The bill attempts to phase out all logging of federal lands where most of the remaining old-growth trees still stand.
From a consumer standpoint, environmentalists recommend using alternative materials or reclaimed wood. If you absolutely have to have redwood for your hot tub, "start asking questions," advises Hanson. If a retailer says he can''t tell you where the wood comes from, walk away.