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Experts & Resources

Post-HidroAysén, Chile’s Rivers Remain at Risk
Amanda Maxwell

Thousands of people in Chile and around the world celebrated when Chile’s government overturned HidroAysén’s environmental permits on June 10, 2014, assuming it was an indication that the country’s rugged, remote Patagonian region would remain safe from large dams. The seven-year campaign to stop HidroAysén—a 2,750 MW hydroelectric complex proposed on Patagonia’s Baker and Pascua Rivers—known broadly as “Patagonia Sin Represas” (“Patagonia without Dams”), was the largest environmental movement in Chile’s history. It proved that local communities working in partnership with national and international actors and organizations, could defeat a poorly planned project backed by powerful national and multi-national companies. (Full disclosure: NRDC is a member of the coalition that worked to stop HidroAysén, called the Patagonia Defense Council.)

Since then, a lot of people have said to me, “HidroAysén is dead! Patagonia is safe, there’s nothing else to do, right?”

Unfortunately, no.

The rivers of Chile’s Patagonia remain at risk of industrial-scale hydroelectric development as other big projects advance and the government envisions large hydroelectric power as a cornerstone of the country’s energy future. Here is a brief summary of two of the most controversial large hydro projects that continue to threaten the country’s free-flowing rivers.

The largest and most well-known hydroelectric proposal moving forward at the moment is the Rio Cuervo project, planned for the Patagonia region of Aysén, like HidroAysén was. The Rio Cuervo dam is owned by Energía Austral, a joint venture of the Swiss mining company Glencore (66 percent owner) and the Australian energy company Origin Energy (34 percent owner). However, recent reports signal that Glencore is looking to sell some or all of its shares in the project. The 640 MW proposal is the first of a three-dam complex, to be followed by the 375 MW Blanco and 50 MW Condor hydro plants nearby.

The Rio Cuervo project is also, according to local experts, extremely poorly planned, for a variety of reasons. To summarize a few of the main concerns:

  1. The dam would be built in the active Liquiñe-Ofqui fault zone, and any failures of the dam could dramatically impact the community of Puerto Aysén, located just 46 kilometers (about 28.6 miles) downstream.
  2. The reservoir would flood almost 6,000 hectares (about 15,700 acres) of untouched wilderness, adjoining the pristine Lakes Yulton and Meullín.
  3. The company failed to meet the International Labor Organization’s standards for indigenous consultation, known as ILO Convention 169, while planning the dam.
  4. The project’s full impacts cannot be known or assessed at this time because the company has yet to present its plan for the transmission line, needed to carry the electricity to the main grid hundreds of kilometers away, and the plans for the Blanco and Condor dams.

The Rio Cuervo project received its environmental permits in 2013, and withstood appeals to the Committee of Ministers, which backed the approval in January this year. In April, local organizations and citizens filed a new appeal to the dam, which highlights that the members of the Committee of Ministers met with the Rio Cuervo project’s proponents, but not with the local communities while evaluating the case. If the authorities side with the locals against the dam, the permits would have to be re-evaluated.

The second project that has caused national controversy lately in Chile is the Mediterráneo project, which is also referred to by the name of the rivers it would be located on: the Rio Puelo or Rio Manso. The $400 million, 210-MW project is unlike most other large hydro proposals in Chile now, because it would be a run-of-the-river plant, and is owned by local Chilean investors. It would be built at the confluence of the Torrentoso and Manso Rivers, both tributaries of the Puelo River, whose entire basin begins at the Puelo Lake in Argentina and flows west into Chile and down the Andes to the Pacific Ocean. I was lucky enough to visit the area in 2015, and I can say—even on a cloudy, dreary day—it is a truly gorgeous part of the planet.

Amanda Maxwell
Amanda Maxwell

Even though the project received its environmental permits in 2013, and those permits were upheld by the Committee of Ministers in November 2015, many in the local community are still opposed to the project. Among their chief concerns are:

  1. The 63 kilometer-long (about 39 miles) transmission line needed to connect the plant to the main grid would run along the most scenic and visible parts of the area, impacting the local tourism industry.
  2. The project’s proponents failed to comply with the ILO’s Convention 169 by not consulting with the indigenous Mapuche community of Santo Domingo Cayun Panicheo before the project’s approval.
  3. A number of legal irregularities have arisen throughout the project’s evaluation process.
  4. The environmental impact assessment was poorly done.

Most recently, Chile’s Environmental Superintendent halted work on the project after the company began constructing a road it was not permitted to build. At the same time, members of Chile’s lower house of Congress have shown their support for the local community opposed to the project.

Finally, it is worth noting that HidroAysén simply refuses to die. The company has recently filed new appeals against the General Water Directorate’s denial of the water rights it applied for in order to build their dams, and that case is pending.

The backdrop to all of this is the fact that the government’s long-term National Energy Policy sets the new target of generating at least 70 percent of Chile’s energy with renewables by 2050, including large hydropower. (Disclaimer #2: On behalf of NRDC, I participated in the Advisory Committee that helped draft recommendations for the policy.) While the policy is, overall, a very encouraging and positive document, and the Ministry of Energy deserves congratulations for the difficult task of creating it, that goal is one that we believe can be met without large hydrothat is, with non-conventional renewable energy and energy efficiency. 

Next week, I’ll post a new blog on the latest developments in Chile’s sustainable energy sector, and underscore why large hydropower does not belong in that category. In the meantime, Chileans fighting to protect their country’s rivers are all over social media, and I encourage you to read more about their work—here are a few Twitter links to get you started: #PatagoniaSinRepresas, #LaBatalladePuelo, #Futaleufu.

Quebec Government Paves Way for New Logging near Broadback River Valley
Joshua Axelrod

The approval of two new roads in Northern Quebec brings the logging industry further into one of the province’s few remaining intact forests located within the commercial harvest zone.

The proposal—supported by five companies—had evolved from around 65 miles of new roads to 45 miles, with 20 miles finally approved by Quebec, allowing industry clearcutting to strike toward the heart of the 5 million acre Broadback River Valley forest.  That forest, which is located within the watershed of the Broadback River, is a small part of the ancestral home of the Waswanipi Cree who continue to use the land year-round to hunt and fish and be on the land that they have used and stewarded for centuries. At the same time, the area is one of the final refuges for several endangered herds of woodland caribou—a species under threat of extirpation across much of Canada due to habitat loss from human activity.

Despite concerns raised by environmental organizations like NRDC and general opposition from the Waswanipi community and warnings about negative impacts from caribou scientists, the government of Quebec has granted its seal of approval to portions of these two roads. In a statement following the decision, the Waswanipi Chief, Marcel Happyjack, stated that the community was “satisfied that the approval of these roads in the Broadback Forest will not encroach on [the Waswanipi] proposed protected area.” At the same time, he stressed that there is a need for environmental reviews in the region to begin considering cumulative impacts, not to mention the harmful impacts these projects are having on the woodland caribou, which depend on the region for their survival. While Quebec’s decision grants a reprieve for portion of the Broadback River valley within the proposed Waswanipi protected area, the approval of these logging roads amplify the imminent nature of the threat Quebec’s remaining intact forests face from industry’s push north and highlight the need for rapid action to preserve what remains from irresponsible, unsustainable clearcutting.

Tyler Rudolph, a prominent Canadian caribou scientist, so succinctly summarized the threat in comments provided to  the Quebec government

[I]t is my assessment that approval of proposed forest access road H and I would jeopardize the prospect of caribou population recovery in the James Bay region. A number of compelling facts support this notion, not the least of which include the presently insufficient critical habitat supplies and the continued inexistence of an acceptable science-based recovery plan. In addition, the particular role of the Broadback forest as the central hub of a dispersal corridor facilitating genetic exchange between regional populations makes its protection vital to long-term woodland caribou persistence on the landscape. Indeed, evidence suggests that the anthropogenic footprint resulting from forestry activities associated with the access roads in question would render the area affected by logging inhospitable to caribou indefinitely.

The brown line beginning in the bottom left is the position of the existing logging road that will be approved under Quebec’s decision. The green and red double lines indicate the position of the new roads that were approved. The thick pink lines indicate the extent of the proposed roads that were not approved. 
Map courtesy of COMEX.

In the decision, which was issued on April 28, 2016 and made public on May 4, 2016, Quebec limited the extent of the two new roads—known as “H West” and “I”—to 32 kilometers (20 miles), approximately 43% of the original proposal.[1] In doing so, it chose to leave a currently 100% intact Waswanipi trapline untouched, while shortening the second road to provide access only to areas already approved for logging in Quebec’s 2013-2018 forestry plan. Based on a map of these approved logging areas, it appears that a substantial portion of the 300,000 acres that industry had said these roads would give them immediate access to will remain inaccessible for the time being (see map below). Meanwhile, the government made a point to highlight that its approval of these roads will not encroach on the proposed protected area the Waswanipi Cree have been asking the Quebec government to preserve for the last decade.

The circled area indicates the northern extent of logging blocks approved by Quebec through 2018 accessible Road H. The government’s approval of these roads used these existing cutting blocks to decide to shorten this road proposal from 22 km to 9 km.
Map courtesy of COMEX.

Map showing the extent that the Fall 2015 industry proposal would have penetrated into the Waswanipi’s protected area proposal. The current approval leaves the two new roads ending south of the area’s border.
Map courtesy of COMEX.

Though the portion of the Broadback River valley that the Waswanipi Cree are focused on preserving appears to have avoided the loggers’ saws today, Quebec’s decision to approve these roads highlights the growing pressure intact forests and the species who depend on them across Quebec are facing. Caribou populations across the province are dwindling, the government has begun to eye opening once-off-limit areas up for future logging, and industry is complaining that it can’t adapt to the rising need to embrace conservation over aggressive over-cutting of the boreal forest. As Canada’s largest forest harvester by area, Quebec bears an enormous responsibility to steward its forests sustainably—for the sake of the ecosystems they support, not to mention the global climate they help to stabilize. Allowing the logging industry to continue its press northward into pristine wilderness, leaving a checkerboard of clearcuts in its wake is the opposite of sustainability. Meanwhile, the province’s continued failure to implement long-promised caribou management plans—while approving huge areas for annual harvesting—continues to call into question how seriously it takes the environmental harms meted out on a daily basis by its timber industry.

[1] The approval also allows for improvement of 21 kilometers of existing road that connects these brand new forestry roads to a highway.

Stop the Drilling Before It Starts
Fact Sheet

The Arctic Ocean is home to a vast array of wildlife yet already facing severe threats from climate change. The Atlantic Ocean supports a rich web of life and thriving coastal economies. Oil production in these oceans—if feasible at all—would take decades to come online, arriving after the transition to cleaner fuels must already have taken place if we are going to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. We must ensure that the U.S. helps to ramp down extraction of fossil fuels—fuels we don’t need and can’t afford to burn—by no longer dedicating our publicly-owned lands and waters to new development. Withdrawing the Arctic and Atlantic from all future oil and gas leasing will grant these waters the permanent protection they so richly deserve and send a powerful global signal that the U.S. is taking steps to get out of the dirty energy business. 

5 Reasons to Withdraw the U.S. Arctic and Atlantic Oceans from All Future Leasing
Opening Our Oceans to Oil: Subsidizing the Past
Franz Matzner

Yesterday, I joined colleagues and concerned citizens from around the country at a gathering to tell the Obama Administration that it’s time to get the federal government out of the business of sanctioning offshore drilling that puts our oceans, communities, and climate at grave risk.

The gathering took place at a public hearing in Washington, D.C., one of a series the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) is hosting across the country to gather input on how our nation’s publicly-owned coastal resources will be managed for the next five years.

And the results were the same as at every other event: a diverse chorus of voices called on President Obama to use his authority to permanently withdraw our unspoiled Arctic and Atlantic oceans from all future drilling, and to take immediate steps to transition Gulf of Mexico communities off of dirty fossil fuels and onto clean energy.

Already, the administration has taken one significant step in the right direction by excluding the Atlantic Ocean from its proposed 5-year plan. Now it’s time to finish the job.

There is far more at stake than one five year plan. The real question is: what future do we envision for our children and grandchildren? Will we hedge our bets on clean energy, and place our last pristine oceans on the oil industry chopping block? Or will we invest in a future powered by the wind and the sun?

The decision provides an opportunity for President Obama to once again demonstrate his faith that we will do what it takes to combat climate change.

Here’s why.

The massive new infrastructure and long lead times required to begin actual drilling in these seas means oil would not come to market for decades — if ever — and past the point when the world will have to have transitioned to clean forms of energy if we have a hope of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.

Simply put, the only reason to keep the door open to future drilling in these oceans — oceans where no drilling has yet begun and that support vibrant local economies and unique ecological values — is if we don’t believe in a climate-safe future. To justify opening these areas, we must instead believe the world will not meet the goals set in Paris to deliver this and the next generation a habitable planet. That we will make so little progress in the next thirty years that there is no room in our “carbon budget” to keep even these precious places from being degraded.

That is why the public outcry for President Obama to seize this moment is so urgent. With only a few months remaining for the public to weigh in on the proposed 5-Year Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program for 2017–2022, concerned citizens are utilizing every opportunity to display the strength of our conviction. Conviction shared by Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley, Sierra Club’s Michael Brune, Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus, and frontline leaders who have come together to speak up in one unified voice.

Last week Secretary Kerry was at the United Nations to sign the historic Paris Climate Agreement. Last month President Obama and Canada’s Prime Minister Trudeau jointly promised a better future for the northern ecosystems our countries steward.

Taking the Arctic and Atlantic off the table permanently is a perfect place to start taking delivery on these promises. After all, it doesn’t help the climate fight to keep fossil fuels in the ground for just five years.

Withdrawing the Arctic and Atlantic is a feasible opportunity that would preserve these unique waters, set important precedent in phasing-out all federal fossil fuel development, and further cement President Obama’s legacy as a climate leader.

Tens of thousands have already weighed in urging the President to act now. You can add your voice, here.

The World Needs Sustainable Forestry: Efforts to Greenwash Harmful Logging Need to be Stopped
Joshua Axelrod

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the world’s leading independent certifier of sustainably managed forests, is facing increasingly vitriolic attacks from various industry trade groups and players in Canada, who argue that the FSC’s policies—specifically their move toward requiring protection of threatened intact forest landscapes—will cause them to lose access to significant wood volumes they need to maintain their current operations. Meanwhile, to keep up volumes of “sustainably harvested” wood products, the largest Canadian operators have begun promoting the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI)—a logging industry created certification scheme that lacks transparent and independently verified audits and markets harmful logging practices as “sustainable.” It’s an example of expert greenwashing and its existence goes a long way toward justifying the urgent need for FSC’s continued leadership in ensuring that consumers have access to sustainably produced products. As explained in detail below, efforts to place FSC and SFI on equal footing are little more than attempts by industry to fool customers into buying wood products that have little guarantee of coming from sustainable sources and are placing our global forests at risk of destruction.

The well-known logos of the two competing sustainable forest certification systems.

But why are attacks on the FSC system in Canada are a real threat to both FSC and the world’s forests? Canadian logging companies have FSC certificates covering more than 50 million hectares (more than 120 million acres), the largest area of FSC certified forests in the world. Though this number is large—and represents more than 30% of the world’s FSC certified forests—it is slowly shrinking as Canadian logging companies let FSC certificates expire and move toward less rigorous, industry-backed certification standards.[1] Meanwhile, continued global growth in demand for wood products is putting increased pressure on the need for careful, sustainable management that protects the long-term health of the world’s forests (and by extension, the products we use from them).

In its first, decade, FSC managed to certify 25 million hectares (or nearly 62 million acres) of forests globally—a number that has now been eclipsed by the nearly 190 million hectares (or nearly three times the size of Texas) that FSC has certified in 81 countries today. Its brand is well-known and major companies have demonstrated strong preferences for products blessed with the mark of FSC certification. Not surprisingly, FSC’s rigorous auditing and monitoring, requirements for conservation, and recognition of indigenous rights and interests has also led to its continued and long-time endorsement by many of the world’s leading environmental organizations. FSC’s strong growth since its founding in 1993 provides some reassurance that this imperative is possible, but developments in Canada set a dangerous precedent that threatens to undermine this progress.

Map showing the areas for potential harvest covered by FSC certificates in Canada. Map courtesy of FSC Canada.

A comparison of several key FSC and SFI requirements and the logging practices each system condones illustrates the threat facing our forests if consumers are led to believe that the two certification systems are equal. Here are four reasons for consumers to avoid SFI certified products.[2]

  • Misleading Labels. The one thing that conscientious consumers are sure to notice is a product’s “ecolabeling.” These labels—think Energy Star; Certified Organic; Non-GMO Project—make us feel like we have some control over what we’re buying and how it was made or its impact on the environment. For SFI-labeled products though, there is almost no guarantee that what the label implies about its production is actually true. SFI’s own materials make this clear when they disclose that the “SFI certified sourcing label does not make claims about certified forest content.” Worse—or perhaps just as bad—SFI’s chain of custody labels overstate the “guaranteed” amount of sustainable content in products bearing the label, which are allowed to contain non-certified by-products or rely on third party certification systems that do not even meet SFI’s own criteria for sustainability.​
  • Logging Practices. When we think about sustainable logging, we like to think that we’re not talking about clearcutting. Unfortunately, this often isn’t the case and SFI certified forests are prime examples. Though certain types of clearcutting—known as “even-aged management” in logging parlance—are often allowed under sustainable forestry regimes, not all clearcutting is created equal. SFI is known for certifying as “sustainable” massive clearcuts where the number of trees removed exceeds the growth rate of the forest they are taken from. In other instances, clearcuts have been done on steep mountainsides prone to erosion that produces high levels of river-clogging sediment run-off. In stark contrast to FSC, SFI also has no requirement for the protection of old growth forests—areas that are under threat around the world, despite their critical ecosystem functions and overall importance to a forest’s long term health.​
  • Encouraging a Race to the Bottom. SFI’s certification scheme has several huge red flags. For wood from forests in North America, for example, SFI only requires that wood not come from “illegal sources,” a requirement that basically allows sourcing from any forest, anywhere in the U.S. or Canada. Compare that to FSC, which requires not only wood from legal sources, but also harvesting practices that have not disrupted indigenous communities, has not destroyed high value forests, or converted forests to a new use (i.e., deforestation). Similarly, SFI requires that its certified producers only comply with the minimum thresholds set by state, federal, or provincial law—thresholds that require only status quo logging practices that are well-known for failing to protect the environment, preserve endangered species, and keep our waterways clean.​
  • Failure to Address Climate Change. In today’s world, forests are one of our best hopes for mitigating the worst impacts of global climate change. When delegates from around the world gathered in Paris in December 2015, this point was driven home, and countries around the world agreed that efforts must be made to maximize the role played by forests as carbon sinks and the threats the world’s forests are facing due to deforestation and forest degradation. Unsurprisingly, SFI pays lip service to the issue of climate change, but continues to fail to incorporate any new standards or requirements that would help SFI certified forests play a positive role in mitigating the problem.
A clearcut in Washington State performed on forest lands certified by SFI. Photo Courtesy of Washington Forest Law Center

The problems with SFI go far beyond what can be encapsulated in a single post. Its audits lack the rigor of the FSC system, its funding structure is almost completely reliant on the industry it certifies, and its standards are filled with loopholes that undermine their effectiveness at every corner. Meanwhile, the world continues to face significant deforestation and forest degradation, logging operations are pushing farther and farther into the last remaining intact territories of indigenous peoples, iconic species great and small are threatened with extinction, and the world’s largest carbon sinks could be devastated. To face these challenges the world needs robust, scientifically defensible, collaborative, and responsive sustainable forestry regimes. One key tool to achieve this is a high-quality, independent, certification scheme. FSC, despite its imperfections, is the best we have. SFI, meanwhile, is pulling the wool over all of our eyes. As consumers of forest products, we all have a responsibility to understand where our products come from and how they are produced. NRDC continues to endorse the FSC certification as the sole global certification system capable of moving us toward a more sustainable forestry future. Choosing FSC certified products helps send a strong signal back to Canadian logging companies that they can’t choose to operate in unsustainable ways and expect the world not to notice.

[1] In December 2015, FSC Canada had certified 54.4 million hectares of forest; in April 2016, that number had fallen to 52.4 million hectares of forest.

[2] Unless a link to an additional source is present, these bullets are based on analysis conducted by Stand (formerly Forest Ethics). Stand is well-known SFI “watchdog,” and has compiled numerous reports based on close analysis of SFI requirements, principles, and practices. Their most recent analyses can be found here and here.

WASHINGTON (March 30, 2016) – The Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace Canada today called on the Quebec government to reject a bid by logging companies to build nearly 50 miles of access roads into the heart of Canada’s Broadback Valley forest that would enable the clearcutting of an

Biospheres: What Are They?
You may have never heard of them, but there are hundreds around the world. Find out what makes this specific type of reserve so special.
Monarch butterflies in the Mariposa Monarca biosphere reserve in Mexico W. Perry Conway/Media Bakery

Biosphere reserves are all around us—there are 47 in the United States alone. They represent a triumph for environmental conservation, but few people would actually be able to define them.

The complexity of these areas is what makes them special, says NRDC wildlife advocate Elly Pepper. To qualify for designation, according to the requirements established by the UNESCO Program on Man and the Biosphere in 1970, a biosphere must have three zones dedicated to distinct, but connected, purposes.

Imagine a map with three concentric zones. "The center is a core area consisting of a strictly protected ecosystem, such as a national park or monument or a state park," says Pepper. "The second is a buffer zone, which surrounds or adjoins the core area and is used for scientific research, monitoring, training, and education. The third is a transition area, where sociocultural and ecologically sustainable development is allowed." In practice, these zones aren't always completely separate, and there might be some overlap—bathrooms or an education center for tourists situated in a buffer zone, for example—and this would be determined by the governing body of the biosphere.

The reserves are meant to address the often conflicting goals of various interest groups when land is set aside for protection. Scientists may want to conserve or research animals and plants, for instance. Indigenous people may be most concerned about preserving their cultural values—which could include honoring traditions on ancestral grounds. All of this is possible in a biosphere, so long as those activities are coordinated, a responsibility that is undertaken by a local system of governance unique to each location.

Take Yellowstone, which is both a U.S. National Park and a biosphere reserve. The core consists of protected lands accessible only to those with special permission, and public areas in which tourists can hike and camp but where animals are completely protected. Then there are the buffer areas, in which animals protected within the park can roam without human-made boundaries; and the transition areas, where profit-making enterprises (hotels, guide services, etc.) can both serve visitors and provide income for locals. The whole biosphere is designed to be flexible so that all these community needs can be met.

There are more than 650 biosphere reserves in 120 countries, and you may already have visited some of them. In the United States, the Everglades, Great Smoky Mountain, Olympic, and Glacier National Parks are all part of larger biosphere reserves. In Mexico, the Laguna San Ignacio gray whale sanctuary is part of the El Vizcaino biosphere reserve. New areas are added every year; in 2015, 20 new biospheres were designated, from the Inlay Lake reserve in Myanmar (the country's first) and the Meseta Iberica reserve shared by Spain and Portugal, to Iran's Tang-e-Sayad and Sabzkuh biosphere reserve and the Cacique Lempira, Señor de las Montañas biosphere reserve in Honduras.

Some of these designated areas have specific purposes. For example, the Mariposa Monarca biosphere reserve in Mexico was set up to study, monitor, and protect the central Mexican forest highlands where monarch butterflies spend the winter. The reserve united five existing refuges and includes several buffer zones. It also comes with more than 90 stakeholders, including indigenous people, small landowners, and the Mexican government. While the biosphere reserve helps protect the monarchs in Mexico, the biggest problem now facing these struggling pollinators, the overuse of pesticides, is now north of the border.

A UNESCO biosphere designation doesn't come with standardized legal protections. Those come via rules that are specific to the country or state, such as a national or state park located within the reserve. But biospheres are often a bridge for those groups that might be critical of protecting land at the expense of economic development or at the risk of disenfranchising people within their historic homelands. "They are completely voluntary," Pepper notes.

Starre Vartan

How NRDC helped protect the Tahuamanú Rainforest from illegal logging.

Personal Action

Be a good neighbor to struggling pollinators by turning your backyard into a welcome pit stop.

Personal Action

These iconic American vacation spots will soon become unrecognizable—or worse, vanish. Pack your bags, quick!


Now deemed national monuments, these natural beauties will be protected for generations.

Policy Primer

If we don’t address these increasingly severe threats, America’s most treasured lands might soon be unrecognizable.

NRDC in Action

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, NRDC’s very own wilderness fanatics share their most treasured park memories.

Northeast Dispatch

New forestry techniques that create the look of old-growth habitats can boost biodiversity—with extra carbon storage as a bonus.

Northeast Dispatch

To protect a massive swath of crucial habitat in New England, locals will use their own shrubland to fill in the blanks.

Personal Action
How to Buy Good Wood
Your guide to purchasing sustainably sourced lumber and furniture.

Whether you're constructing a deck, building a fence, or buying a nightstand, the type of wood you choose matters. In the best case, your purchase could support a sustainable community rainforest initiative. In the worst, it could contribute to the impoverishment of families, the clear-cutting of forests, or the endangerment of wildlife.

David Papazian/Media Bakery

So what is sustainable wood? First, it's sourced legally. (Although a 2008 law banned the import of illegally sourced timber into the United States, it still happens more than it should.) But, of course, sustainability involves a lot more than that: "It's also harvested using practices that protect the species that live in the forest, the local water quality, and the rights of indigenous people, all at a very high level," says Debbie Hammel, director of NRDC's Land Markets initiative.

As a consumer, you can hold retailers accountable—and help steer the market away from destructive logging and toward better business practices. But determining for sure whether a specific wood product is sustainable can be tricky: The same species may be responsibly sourced from one country but illegal and unsustainable from another. Here's what you need to know to ensure your dollars are being spent smartly.

No project too small

When is it important to buy sustainably? In short, any time you're in the market for something made with wood: beds and sofas, tables and chairs, even doors and windows for your home. Obviously, the bigger the purchase (or construction project), the more of an impact it can have—but remember that every conscious decision can make a difference. As Hammel says, "You're voting with your dollar."

Your best option: Buy recycled

Remember: You don't always have to cut down a tree. Buying reclaimed or salvaged woods prevents unnecessary logging and its associated greenhouse gas emissions; it also provides incentives for municipal recycling programs. If you're not sure whether the wood you're buying is really on its second life, ask the seller for proof; he or she should be able to provide documentation as to where it came from. If you can't find used wood, give recycled-plastic lumber or composites a try.

The next best thing: Look for the FSC logo

If you do decide to build with or buy products made from virgin wood, look for a Forest Stewardship Council, or FSC, label. This will tell you that the wood came from a well-managed forest with lower-impact logging methods. "While no verification system is perfect, FSC is the gold standard," Hammel says. The FSC also promotes systems to track lumber from the forest to the consumer so you can ensure that your purchase was legally harvested.

No logo? Dig deeper

If the wood you're interested in isn't FSC-certified, it may be difficult to learn its history. (There are other international certifications, but none are as rigorous or independently evaluated as the FSC's.) Your best bet is to ask questions: What country and region is the wood from, and what lumber company harvested it? If retailers don't know, ask their suppliers to find out.

Make your priorities clear

Today, most large home improvement and furniture retailers sell at least some FSC-certified options. But you might walk into a store that offers none. (Overall, less than 20 percent of all wood products sold in the United States are certified.) "In those cases, it's always good to say, 'I really wish you would carry FSC-certified products,' " says Hammel. "The more people they hear that from, the more they'll pass the message up the chain to their suppliers."

Going tropical? Proceed with extra caution

Tropical hardwoods—those harvested in Central and South America and southeastern Asia and Africa—are difficult to manage sustainably because they typically grow at low densities in natural forests and regenerate poorly after logging. Many of these forests have been subject to damaging illegal logging activities. Looking for an FSC logo and asking the right questions is especially important if you're buying the following.

  • Big-leaf mahogany: used in furniture, interior finishing, artisanal goods, boatbuilding, and veneer
  • Spanish cedar: used in furniture, cabinetry, musical instruments, and construction
  • Caribbean pine: used in lightweight construction, broom handles, crates, and posts
  • Ipê: used in heavy construction, residential decking, and fence posts
  • Rosewood: used in artisanal carving, musical instruments, and tool and cutlery handles
  • Teak: used in furniture, interior finishing, decking, shipbuilding, and veneer
  • Ramin: used in baby cribs, picture frames, tool handles, pool cues, moldings, and flooring
  • Merbau: used in flooring, posts, beams, furniture, and musical instruments
  • African mahogany: used in furniture, interior finishing, boatbuilding, and artistry
  • Okoumé: used in furniture, interior finishing, cabinetry, cigar boxes, veneer, and plywood

Educate others

Now that you know the difference between good and bad wood, take a look at the procurement policies of your workplace, school, house of worship, or community organization. Let others—including policy makers—know how sustainably procured wood benefits the world's forests and the people who live and work around them. Some cities have purchasing policies that give preference to FSC-certified wood or recycled alternatives. Talk to your local leaders and convince your city to become one of the next with a sustainable wood purchasing policy.

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