From Stump to Consumer: Many Forest Products Take the Long Road to Customers (part 2 of 2)
Woodworking, a key industry in Vermont for centuries, is a significant part of the state’s economy. Some environmental considerations include the practices of the loggers and mills harvesting it, as well as where the timber comes from. Timber that travels farther has a bigger carbon footprint. In recent years, various certification standards have been developed to certify lumber as sustainable or “green,” such as those developed by the Forest Stewardship Council and the Sustainable Forest Initiative. The Leadership in Energy Environmental Design certification system was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council for construction of green buildings.
Ideally, a house would be constructed with local lumber that was either FSC- or SFI-certified and built to LEED specifications. But this process can present some challenges.
J.K. Adams, a manufacturer of wooden kitchenware and furniture in Dorset, was one of the first companies in the industry to be FSC-certified, even though the cost of that certification required the company to raise its prices.
It also had to confront the logistical challenge of isolating FSC-certified lumber from non-FSC-certified lumber.
Maple Landmark Furniture of Middlebury, another company that faced challenges operating under FSC guidelines, eventually dropped its FSC certification because it was very difficult to get certified lumber from local sources.
More FSC-certified lumber is available now – but not consistently.
Tim Copeland of Copeland Furniture in Bradford reports that it is relatively easy to get FSC-certified maple, but some other species, such as walnut, are much more difficult to find.
FSC certification, oriented toward large forests, is costly to obtain. Much of the forest land in Vermont is in small parcels, so each 10- to 25-acre lot must be certified.
Consequently a landowner with a small woodlot often cannot justify the cost of certification, even if that woodlot is being managed in a sustainable manner consistent with FSC requirements.
And unlike some other states, Vermont has not obtained FSC certification for its state forests.
To address this problem, pilot programs are under way to eventually confer FSC status to local foresters who work with small landowners in the state. These foresters could extend FSC status to the people they work with at a much lower cost compared with normal FSC certification.
Other certification systems that are less expensive to obtain – such as the American Tree Farm System – are available.
One of the issues with LEED guidelines, according to Kevin Hastings of Amoskeag Woodworking in Colchester, is that they can dictate the use of nonlocal materials.
For instance, LEED guidelines sometimes require that certain materials used in building construction contain certain percentages of post-consumer-materials recycled content.
In Vermont and many other parts of the Northeast, these materials must be trucked in from distant producers. The carbon emissions generated by trucks as they transport LEED materials to work sites increases the carbon footprint of these “green” materials.
“There’s such a disconnect between the goods we use and where they come from,” observes Malcolm Cooper, president of J.K. Adams.
A LEED-compliant set of cabinets may not be as green as it seems, when the carbon footprint associated with transporting that product is considered. A different set of cabinets that is not LEED-certified might actually be more green, if made by a local woodworker who purchased the lumber from a neighbor’s sawmill that harvested its timber in accordance with sustainable practices.
As Mike Rainville, owner of Maple Landmark Woodcraft, says, “It doesn’t make sense to bring lumber in from 300 miles away when it’s in your backyard.”
Chris Olson, Addison County forester for the Agency of Natural Resources, agrees. Olson points out that harvesting practices in the developed world have largely evolved to the point where many of the related environmental concerns have been mitigated – or at least are addressed by regulations that may or may not be enforced.
Olson notes, “There are forest practices acts, acceptable management practices for protecting water quality, timber harvesting laws and regulations, water quality laws and regulations, FSC, SFI, and many other checks and balances for what happens near the stump. And then we have free trade and all the globalization trends that encourage goods to travel long distances. I would ask these questions: ‘What forest product did you use today? Where’s the stump? Where was it processed and manufactured?'”
Olson describes a typical scenario: “Trees are cut from stumps in Pawlet, limbed and skidded to be loaded onto a truck; trucked to a concentration yard in West Pawlet or Granville, N.Y., trucked or railed to a port, unloaded, loaded onto a ship, shipped across at least one ocean, unloaded, trucked to a concentration yard, unloaded, reloaded onto a truck or rail car, unloaded into a processing plant, sawn, loaded onto a forklift, stuck into a kiln, reloaded onto a truck or rail, unloaded at a furniture plant, manufactured into component parts, boxed, reloaded, trucked or rail freighted again, shipped back across an ocean and then trucked to a big box store. And then I go to that store and buy a chair and assemble it about 30 miles from the stump.”
Local sawmills are closing. David Williams, owner of Champlain Hardwood in Essex Junction, reports that Lakewood Lumber, a big sawmill near Syracuse, N.Y., recently closed because of poor profits and high overseas competition.
Vermont is exporting a larger portion of raw product than ever before.
“Pretty soon we might be exporting more unprocessed high-grade logs – with the bark still on – than we’d have the capacity to saw here in Vermont,” Olson said.
For more information on the link between local wood product producers and Vermont’s environment and working landscape, see the first article in this series, “From forests to furniture: Vermont woodworking businesses tie into the local landscape,” which was published Jan. 16.
Nathaniel Gibson is a freelance writer and locavore who lives in Pawlet. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
The article originally appeared in the Rutland Herald and the Times Argus:
March 6, 2011