IMAGE: LUKAS KETNER
The U.S. Forest Service is studying how close its management practices at six sites, including the 1.1-million-acre acre Mount Hood National Forest and two other public forests in Oregon, come to meeting independent "green" certification standards.
Those green standards are ordinarily sought by owners of private forestland to demonstrate their environmental bona fides.
The Forest Service says the goal of its study isn't to have the public forests green-certified. Instead, the Forest Service says it wants to know how closely its current forest management practices come to meeting the green standards.
But enviros worry that the assessment of Mount Hood, the coastal Siuslaw National Forest, and Lakeview Federal Stewardship Unit on the Fremont-Winema National Forest in eastern Oregon could ultimately open public forests to more logging under the guise of environmental friendliness.
Why look at whether a public forest meets certification standards if you have no intention of applying those standards to logging, asks Alex Brown, executive director of Bark, a grassroots forest-preservation group.
Brown notes the Bush administration has proposed cutting several pieces of the national forest system's $1.4 billion annual budget for recreation, wilderness and heritage-site services while increasing money dedicated to timber sales and forest products by 11 percent.
"It just doesn't make sense," Brown says.
Forest Service spokesman Rick Acosta insists there's no way to know whether this initial assessment or actual certification might lead to more logging.
Auditors surveyed Mount Hood in September, and a report is expected by March. Mount Hood's forest plan, scheduled to be updated in 2009, will include public input to "set the tone of how the forest is managed," Acosta says.
So, what is green certification, anyway?
Just as coffee grown under certain standards can be labeled "fair trade," two major organizations currently certify timberland in the U.S. as sustainable when the management of the land meets their criteria for environmental responsibility. Although being green can drive up the price of timber, ecologically concerned consumers have proved willing to pay the added costs.
While millions of predominantly private acres have been voluntarily certified since the early 1990s by the Forest Stewardship Council and its rival, the Sustainable Forest Initiative, the 192 million acres of national forestland remain a virtually untapped "green" market.
The dispute over the certification assessment comes at the same time that Oregon's congressional delegation has failed to broker a deal setting aside up to 125,000 acres in the forest. And it comes a year after the Forest Service rankled environmental groups with new rules that give administrators more discretion regarding wildlife protection, reduce public input and no longer require environmental-impact statements when a forest plan is significantly revised or amended.
According to a Forest Service report, the cost of the six forest assessments is being split between the Forest Service and the Pinchot Institute, a nonpartisan forest-conservation-policy group. Taxpayers are on the hook for up to $100,000 per site.
Opening the public lands up for certification could also mean a big boost for the certification companies. Costs vary depending on the size and scope of the assessment, but can range from under 25 cents per acre to several dollars.
Since national forests are public lands, the question of certifying them has been extremely controversial. Even Forest Service public-relations documents call the issue potentially "polarizing."
"Certification is getting dragged into an old argument and both sides will always be where they are based on what they think about the management of public lands," says Ned Daly, vice president of operations for the Forest Stewardship Council.