A current debate that appears highly technical and tailor made for policy wonks has significant real world-implications for the timber industry, building community and tree farmers across the United States. The issue of forest certification and how it is regulated is a classic example of how government policy can create inefficiencies and stifle competition in the private sector. Current regulations are preventing foresters nationwide from selling their products in emerging “green” markets. The United States Green Building Council’s LEED standards are a classic example of government picking winners and losers in what should be an open marketplace.
The USGBC only recognizes one specific forest certification program, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) as contributing to sustainability in building projects. As a result, government agencies who tie themselves to USGBC guidelines often only allow wood products recognized by the FSC to be used in building projects in their jurisdiction. Just as important, FSC-only policies promoted by the government give consumers and retailers the impression that FSC is the gold standard of certification, despite a growing number of dissenting voices in conservation circles, academia and land management.
Since only a fraction of American landowners are FSC certified, this policy excludes the majority of the country’s foresters from marketing their products in “green” economic sectors. A majority of tree farmers utilize the American Tree Farm System (ATFS) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) instead of FSC.
The unintended consequences of this government-imposed monopoly are clear. If FSC certification is too costly for landowners to pursue, and government limits the benefits of SFI and ATFS, then many landowners will not seek certification at all. If the number of foresters who can sell their timber in as many markets as possible is limited, revenues in the forest products industry decrease, as well as tax collections for local communities. Many rural communities nationwide depend on paper and pulp mills, and erecting artificial barriers in the way of their commerce will only hurt these areas.
A better approach entails taking steps similar to Georgia Governor Nathan Deal’s recent executive order, which put ATFS, SFI and FSC on a level playing field. No system will be shown favoritism from government. Policies such as this will incentivize certification, increase the number of energy- efficient buildings constructed nationwide, benefit the environment and increase activity in the timber industry, which will keep more workers on the job.
Once again, the benefits of a free market that promotes competition exceed those of heavy-handed government regulation.