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Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Home Depot, Plum Creek and the effects of media spin

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When Missoula’s next big-box retailer moves onto Reserve Street next summer, western Montana’s forest activists might actually have something to celebrate.

That’s because Home Depot, the nation’s largest home improvement retailer, has pledged to stop selling wood products from environmentally sensitive old-growth forests and to give preference to green-label wood that has been independently certified as coming from well-managed forests.

Contrary to recent reports in the Missoulian, however, the “green” lumber on Home Depot’s shelves isn’t likely to carry the logo of Plum Creek Timber Company. And that relieves Montana conservationists who commonly refer to Plum Creek as the Darth Vader of the timber industry.

“Quite simply, Plum Creek hasn’t been a good neighbor in Montana,” says Bob Ekey, regional director of The Wilderness Society. “They have liquidated their forests, degrading water quality and damaging wildlife habitat throughout western Montana.”

Earlier this month, the Missoulian carried a front-page article about Plum Creek’s self-ballyhooed “environmental forestry” program. The news peg was accounting giant PriceWaterhouseCoopers’ audit that verified Plum Creek has complied with the guidelines of the so-called Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), a creation of a national timber industry group.

Of particular interest to conservationists, the articles strongly implied that Plum Creek’s forestry practices meet Home Depot’s new guidelines for certified wood products. Plum Creek touted the accounting firm’s audit as the independent guarantee it needed to satisfy Home Depot’s environmental criteria.

Not so quick, said Kim Woodbury of Home Depot this week.

Plum Creek’s Sustainable Forestry Initiative does not provide the independent stamp of approval that Home Depot requires for certification, she said. In particular, Home Depot’s purchasing guidelines require the application of external standards developed outside the industry itself. Those standards must consider social as well as environmental issues.

“It’s important to look at all areas of forest management,” said Woodbury from Home Depot’s Atlanta office. “We want to drive the industry to a higher standard.”

Although a small step in the right direction, industry’s self-developed SFI guidelines do not achieve a higher standard, conservationists say. They are broad, weak and open-ended, with few on-ground performance requirements. A third-party audit using SFI standards doesn’t signify much.

Plum Creek is a particularly poor poster child for the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, enviros say. “Whatever you might say about Plum Creek, you probably wouldn’t use the word ‘sustainable,’ says Bruce Farling of Montana Trout Unlimited. “They can hire all the ad people they want, but the landscape tells the story. It doesn’t look sustainable to me.”

In fact, Plum Creek has provided ample evidence that its management of 1.5 million acres in Montana has been anything but sustainable. A decade ago, Plum Creek earned the “Darth Vader” title in the Wall Street Journal after company executive Bill Parsons scoffed at the notion of sustainability.

“We have never said we were on a sustained-yield program, and we have never been on a sustained-yield program,” Parsons said. “Let’s get to the heart of it. Sure, it’s extensively logged, but what is wrong with that?”

Parsons’ blunt assessment was confirmed in 1997 in documents Plum Creek filed with the Securities Exchange Commission. “By the year 2000, the [company] anticipates that it will have nearly completed the conversion of slower growing forests to younger, more productive stands in the Rocky Mountain Region, at which time it anticipates a moderate reduction in the region’s harvest levels.” In other words, the big trees were converted to stumps much faster than new trees can grow.

Plum Creek’s rapid liquidation of its mature timber in Montana was near completion when the company shifted its investments last year to purchase a million acres in Maine. To feed its own mills in Montana, Plum Creek has increased its purchase of public timber in northwestern Montana, outcompeting smaller, independent mills.

Woodbury said that Home Depot endorses the process developed by the international Forest Stewardship Council, which includes environmentalists, timber companies and community advocates and which has certified 40 million acres worldwide. Similar independent certification efforts are being developed around the world, but the U.S. industry’s SFI does not pass muster, she said.

(In the interest of full disclosure, my work as a natural resource consultant has included coordination of FSC’s standards-development process in the Rocky Mountains by a 24-person working group of foresters, conservationists, loggers and scientists.)

Woodbury acknowledges that forest certification is complex and often confusing, creating confusion that environmentalists say has been compounded by misleading claims by companies like Plum Creek. However, as demonstrated by hundreds of thousands of comments on government organic agriculture standards a couple years ago, Americans increasingly care where products come from.

“People are very tuned into this topic and people are going to be paying attention,” says Home Depot’s Woodbury. “We think it makes good business sense, and we want to do it right.”

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