Key players in the years-long fight over green construction wood-certification schemes appear to be uniting--for opposite reasons--behind promoting a "no" vote on a U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) proposal that would set standards on which groups' wood certification schemes will qualify for points in the USGBC's LEED program.

Early Monday--the first day of balloting on the proposal--the Forest Stewardship Council's (FSC) U.S. branch came out against the proposal, and backed up its call by distributing an open letter from 14 major environmental groups urging eligible voters to cast their votes against the proposal on grounds that the USGBC standards should be at least as rigorous as the FSC's.

Meanwhile, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI)--one of the leading organizations seeking to have its certification recognized by USGBC--continues to attack the USGBC rules for "splitting hairs" in "minute" ways that ignore bigger issues, but also manage to block groups like SFI from ever winning the council's approval. It hasn't officially called for a rejection of the proposal, but has repeatedly said it doesn't like the idea.

The vote that the USGBC consensus group will take is about the benchmarks that any wood-certification group that would have to pass if it wants to have its certification system qualify for points under LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), an important green construction rating system. To date, only FSC-certified wood certified qualifies for LEED points. That irks organizations such as SFI, the Canadian Standards Association (CSA), American Tree Farm System (ATFS), and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes (PEFC), all of which argue that their certification programs also should qualify.

The fight over wood-certification systems ranks among the most bitterly debated issues that the USGBC has ever confronted, and what's up for a vote now is the fourth draft of a document that has been undergoing revisions for several years. In essence, it revolves around profound differences between environmentalists and tree-growers regarding what are ecologically responsible forestry practices.

"Where we use forests, we have a responsibility to use them well," Corey Brinkema, president of the FSC's U.S. branch, said in a statement. "These revisions would be a big step backwards for the green building movement. ... We believe the standards set by FSC should represent the floor, not the ceiling."

FSC also noted that the complete LEED program will come up for revision in 2012. "If the proposed revision passes, it would encourage widespread lobbying for weaker standards throughout LEED," FSC said.

The environmental groups echoed FSC's contentions.

"Although the Benchmark does an admirable job of identifying many (though not all) of the important criteria for evaluating forest management and certification, it represents a step backwards--and a direct contravention of USGBC's mission," the open letter from the environmental groups said.

They also said the controversy over certified wood "has been triggered by those who have a lot invested in status quo forestry, and who see the rising demands of the green building marketplace as a threat rather than an opportunity." SFI originally was an arm of the timber industry but now stresses that it's an independent group. Its proponents also argue that they feel just as strongly about responsible, ecological forestry as the environmental groups do, but simply feel differently about the best practices and approaches to achieve that goal.

In its call urging a "no" vote, FSC cited in particular its view that economic interests on a wood-certification body should be limited to one-third of the vote, the certification should be required to have "meaningful representation" elected by the system's membership, and votes should be set up to require majorities from each of three major subgroups--environmental, social, and economic interests. It also spoke out against systems that would make it easier to do genetic modification, convert natural forests to tree plantations, or make decisions without public consultation, particularly when the public involves indigenous peoples.

The SFI and its counterparts view things quite differently.

"Independent assessments globally recognize the merits of all credible forest certification programs, and in fact the United Nations recently reported that these programs generally have the same structural programmatic requirements, so why is the USGBC splitting hairs over minute details between programs?" SFI president and CEO Kathy Abusow said in a statement sent to ProSales on Thursday. "It's time for the USGBC to heed the advice of more than 6,000 people globally, including 12 U.S. governors and 88 members of Congress, who are asking the USGBC to recognize all forest certification programs, especially those right here in our communities across North America."

A New York Times blog Friday quoted Abusow as saying SFI is likely to give up trying to deal with USGBC and instead will promote other green building programs that are open to wood-certification schemes other than FSC's. For instance, the green standard championed by the National Association of Home Builders recognizes all the major wood-certification labels.

Unlike most policy votes that USGBC takes, this one won't be decided by the council's 17,000 member companies. Rather, the votes will be cast only by a "consensus group" of USGBC members who got the chance to opt into the group this summer. USGBC officials then reviewed the consensus group to determine whether its membership was "balanced" (a term it has never comprehensively defined) across the three main USGBC member groups: users, general interest, and producers. USGBC has concluded that the group's membership is balanced, a USGBC spokesperson indicated Tuesday in an e-mail to ProSales. Ballots will be accepted until Nov. 23.

Non-forestry, non-environmental groups also are beginning to weigh in on the issue. Doug Pierce of the Perkins+Will architectural firm wrote on the LEEDuser forum that "at first blush, it looks to us like the benchmark continues to be a significant reduction from the current FSC requirements. In our opinion, the governance is weak (which is a very serious issue), and the 'field' requirements for forest management are reduced as well."

The environmental groups' letter was signed by executives from the Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network, ForestEthics, Greenpeace USA, Bullitt Foundation, Wilderness Society, Greenpeace Canada, Defenders of Wildlife, Rainforest Alliance, National Wildlife Federation, Dogwood Alliance, World Wildlife Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Earthjustice.

Craig Webb is editor of ProSales magazine.