Out of the 750 million forested acres in the United States, North Carolina and South Carolina have a little more than 31 million acres covered in wooded habitats. But forests are more than just a place for Bambi, Peter Rabbit and Tom Turkey to live and places for a fleet of hunters trying to fill their tags; they support a massive forest-products industry. In North Carolina alone, it is the top manufacturing business in the state, contributing more than 180,000 jobs and $23.1 billion in economic benefits.

The United States covers approximately 2.2 billion acres, and one third of that area is forested. Since the beginning of the 20th century, that figure has remained relatively consistent regardless of the exponential developmental and population growth over the last 100 years. In the Carolinas, about 60 to 68 percent of the land area is forested, with an overwhelming 79 to 80 percent under non-industrial, private ownership. The owners of the South’s forests have proven to the world they can grow a commercial crop of trees in a sustainable, environmental friendly manner. 

Sustainable forestry practices for landowners in the South are far from new. It is a way of life for tree farmers in the Carolinas to put food on the table, and there is significant data available to prove it. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, forest-volume inventories in the Carolinas have increased nearly 140 percent over the past 50 years, a true testament to the private forest landowner and the forestry community. From consulting foresters and loggers in the field to the wood-product processing facilities, a sustainable forestry approach ensues job security and environmental stewardship.  

What is sustainable forestry anyway? Sustainable forestry is a way of managing land to ensure that the forest resources will be available today and in the future. From harvesting to replanting, the forest lands will follow a management plan that includes the essential elements for long-term availability. 

But even out of the 100 years of sustainable forest management under the belt of southerners, pressure from the environmental movement is having a negative impact on private forest owners due to politics and lack of support from participating federal entities. The United States Green Building Council’s LEED policies may cripple our forest products industry if regulations don’t change. 

LEED certification is part of a movement in which everything from the raw materials in the woods to the finished homes is based on green-building strategies and the chain of custody documentation. In order for finished products to become LEED certified, the forest products must come from a sustainable source, and this is where the landowner can be affected. 

In order to be classified as sustainably certified, everything from the dirt the trees are grown on to the lumber merchants selling the studs must be from a classified sustainable source. Consumers are requiring that their wood products be sourced from a certified sustainable source, and this is where the problem arises. 

Only three sustainable forest certification programs exist: the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) and the American Tree Farm Association (ATFA). These programs require landowners to go through rigorous testing, documentation and audits to earn a sustainability certificate to label their forest products for sale. 

Over the past decade, there has been a strong push to use wood products from sustainable sources all the way from the forests into the consumer’s hands. Over the next decade, the push for LEED-certified products from a sustainable chain of custody will become a part of the everyday business, and the current status of LEED’s policies is detrimental to landowners already operating under sustainable practices as demonstrated over the past century.  

Unfortunately, the U.S. Green Building Council LEED Certification Board only recognizes FSC certified wood products and wood facilities. Both SFI and ATFA are heavily recognized throughout the United States and in the Carolinas, but FSC has a much-lower presence in the United States as compared to Canada, Europe, South America, Asia, Africa and Oceania. In North Carolina, 1.3 million acres of timberland are currently enrolled in either ATFA or SFI, but there is less than 50,000 acres of forestlands certified by FSC. Similar statistics are comparable for South Carolina forests.  

As the regulations stand, locally grown timber from a sustainable means will be overlooked for foreign imports from only FSC certified forests to satisfy LEED certification requirements. This is a real problem that is in dire need of legislative action. 

Many publicly-funded projects across the Carolinas require LEED certification standards for building projects. This means that most publicly-funded projects paid for by tax dollars will require the use of foreign wood products instead of local sources, but it doesn’t have to be this way. 

The U.S. Green Building Council needs to adopt the ATFS and SFI Standards into the LEED Certification Standard. However, the U.S. Green Building Council refuses to change its standards. At a minimum, all publicly funded projects need to drop the LEED Standards requirement to support local industry and forest landowners. 

Sustainable forestry and environmental stewardship is part of the culture. The numbers are clear for the forest-products industry across the Carolinas. Becoming dependant on natural resources from foreign sources is a real problem for the United States economy. As long as the green movement doesn’t force consumers to become dependent on foreign sources of locally-grown products, the forest-products industry in the Carolinas may press on for another couple of centuries.