Why USGBC Should Recognize SFI – Our Story: A Georgia Tree Farm and Green Building

April 25, 2012
By Earl and Wanda Barrs
Owners of Gully Branch Tree Farm

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) is about to begin the fourth public comment period on draft credit language for LEED 2012. Respected organizations are calling on USGBC to recognize all credible certification programs used in North America through LEED – including the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, American Tree Farm System, Canadian Standards Association, Forest Stewardship Council and Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification. SFI Inc. has invited views on how USGBC should treat third-party forest certification: In this post, award-winning Georgia tree farmers Earl and Wanda Barrs talk about the value of SFI and ATFS certification to family forest owners.

For the past 25 years, my wife Wanda and I have managed 1,500 acres of forestland in Bleckly County, Georgia. My family first settled this land in the late 1800s. Now, I am proud to say that our tree farm, Gully Branch, has been recognized nationally as a state-of-the-art forest.

Gully Branch is certified to the American Tree Farm System® standards, and our ATFS management plan outlines in great detail how we will protect and enhance our tree farm for timber, wildlife, water and recreation. I am a trained forester and Wanda has dedicated her professional life to education. Gully Branch has been used as one of Georgia’s premier outdoor classrooms and since 1994, more than 7,000 students and adults have visited our tree farm.

Offering opportunities for children to learn about how a working forest provides wood products for our homes, schools and businesses; cleans our air and water, and provides critical habitat for wildlife brings us great satisfaction. Students of all ages need to learn about the value of well-managed forests and the multiple benefits that come from healthy forests.

Across the country, families and individuals own more of America’s forestland than any other group, including the federal government or industry. In Georgia, families own more than half of the forestland in the state, and 70 percent of the wood used by industry comes from family forest owners like us. These families play a key role in providing jobs and economic vitality for rural communities.

But we will only continue to see the benefits that our forests provide – clean air, clean water, wildlife habitat, recreation, wood products, jobs and economic vitality – if we continue to work to ensure healthy markets for our wood products.

Green building markets are an important emerging opportunity for products from Georgia’s sustainably managed forests. USGBC’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system has helped increase awareness about green building, and several government agencies have adopted the LEED system for their building policies. Unfortunately, LEED standards have continued to shortchange wood as a renewable and environmentally preferable building material. LEED offers few credits for the use of wood in green building, and the credits that are related to wood products are restrictive.

In the new LEED 2012 draft, we remain strongly opposed to the USGBC’s treatment of forest certification, only recognizing wood certified to the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) forest certification standard. Builders would not have the same incentives to build with wood from forest certification standards, like our ATFS Certified Family Forest, or the SFI Standard which also supports our communities and our forests.

However, we were encouraged to see some improvements in LEED 2012 that would allow for greater consideration and recognition of the environmental benefits of wood. Tools like Life Cycle Assessment and Environmental Product Declarations scientifically measure and describe the environmental impacts of materials. Overall, wood tends to do well compared to other products, and by including these tools, LEED would hopefully create a greater demand for wood products in green building – strengthening markets for family forest owners like us.

When markets were healthiest, so were America’s forests because landowners had the resources to reinvest in their forests.  It is important that the USGBC do more to recognize wood grown and certified to the ATFS and SFI standard so that family forest and working forests can be sustained and help grow in the green building market.

Earl and Wanda Barrs of Cochran, GA, were recognized as 2009 National Outstanding Tree Farmers of the Year, by the American Tree Farm System, a program of the American Forest Foundation (AFF). Wanda serves as Vice-Chair of the AFF Woodlands Operating Committee and on the AFF Board of Trustees. Earl serves as Chair of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Board.

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