By Mike A'Dair
Willits News
November 17, 1999

Willits resident Steven Sage recently disclosed that he has brokered an offer from Home Depot, the world's largest lumber retailer, to purchase millions of board feet of certified forest products from north coast timber companies.

Sage is western regional marketing director with the Willits-based company SmartWood, a division of the Institute for Sustainable Forestry.

"Certified" means that timber products have been grown and harvested according to guidelines that promote healthy, sustainable forest ecosystems and have been certified by third party companies--not by the timber owner itself, for obvious reasons--as having been employed in harvesting the timber and in the future planning and care for the forest.

"Over the past year or two, we have certified enough landowners so that we can guarantee Home Depot 25 million board feet of redwood and 25 million board feet of fir a year," Sage said.

The SmartWood deal is part of a much larger initiative undertaken by Home Depot, which finds the corporation running full page ads in Time Magazine publicizing its decision to sell products harvested from, environmentally well-managed forests.

"Home Depot has told us that they will buy all the certified wood they can. They want to have nothing but certified wood products in their stores by 2003," Sage said.

Home Depot has 856 stores in the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico and Chile. It had sales of more than $30 billion in 1998, and currently is the largest single retailer of wood products in the world.

Arthur Blank, chief executive officer of Home Depot, recently characterized Home Depot's global market share as "less than 10 percent of the lumber in the world."

Although 50 million board feet is a small market share for the north coast region (Mendocino County's average timber production for the past several years is approximately 250 million board feet), the number could have more impact than simple arithmetic might warrant.

"It could stabilize the timber industry on the north coast," Sage said. "Local landowners will know that they have an 'annual allowable cut' that they can cut and that they will be able to sell that every year," Sage said. "We are hoping that this offer from Home Depot will provide an incentive for small mills in our region to go out and ask landowners to get certified. This demand from Home Depot will create a system of more environmentally well-managed forest that will eventually persuade other wood products distributors to move to selling certified products."

In a conversation with Sage in early October, he named four smaller north coast timber companies as being involved in the deal. To date, the full dimensions of the deal envisioned by Sage have yet to materialize, although representatives from each of the companies have indicated that their companies are interested and are working at trying to stabilize and expand their certified timber program.

So far, only Harwood Products, of Branscomb, has confirmed that they are part of the deal.

On Friday Nov. 12, Harwood marketing director Steve Calverley confirmed that Harwood has a "tentative agreement to supply Home Depot in the Reno area with certified redwood products through one of our distributors."

Calverly added that, "Harwood expects that more of these contracts will come up in the future. Lowes and Home Base, (two other wood products retailers with extensive chains) are expected to follow suit with certified edicts in the next couple of months," Calverley said.

Asked whether the recent increase in certified landowners and foresters might weaken the principles upon which certification is granted, Walter Smith, a consultant for SmartWood, says that the chances of that happening are small. "We have the public involved and commenting on our criteria on the one hand and on the other hand we have the Forest Stewardship Council looking over our shoulder, " Smith said. "I think that that is going to keep us on the high road."

Smith agreed that the Home Depot offer is quite significant. "What it does do is it starts mainstreaming people's idea that forestry needs to change," Smith said. "This is scaring the (expletive) out of big industry. All of a sudden the largest consumer of wood in the world is saying they want only certified wood by 2003. That means that, what was once a small environmental movement has now made some pretty significant waves.

"Here we have some Home Depot, and B&Q in England (another multi-store retailer) saying "We're not going to buy your wood anymore." It really has their britches in a bunch," said Smith.

Smith, SmartWood certification coordinator, confirmed that the timber industry is concerned about Home Depot's shift to certified products. He said that should industry wish to convert to a certification system, it would probably take them five years.

"It's a whole different mindset that will have to change. It's not gonna come overnight," Steve Smith said. "It will probably take five years. They could do it if they really wanted to. Its gotta come from the gut. If it doesn't come from the gut, its gonna take longer."

Smith said that Ukiah-based timber company Mendocino Redwood Company is a leader in the conversion to certified production. "Everyone is watching MRC. Big Industry is watching them. They don't like what they see, but there's not much they can do about it.

"They (MRC) are the ones that are leading the pack and breaking the new ground. They will be they model, and it's funny because they were the worst. You can say that: [former owner of the 330,000 acres of timberland-mill complex now operated by MRC] Louisiana-Pacific was about as bad as you can get. And now MRC is swinging way over to the other side. How far in that direction they are going to go, and where they are going to come down, remains to be seen."

SmartWood is division of the Institute for Sustainable Forestry, which is a member of the international organization, the Forest Stewardship Council.

According to Sage, the criteria for certification practiced by SmartWood are more stringent than those of the FSC, which are necessarily broad since they must hold for conditions and societies all over the world.

The elements of sustainability promoted by ISF/SmartWood are: Protect, maintain and/or restore the aesthetics vitality, structure and functioning of the natural process of the ecosystem; surface and ground water quality and quantity, including aquatic and riparian habitat; natural processes of soil fertility productivity and stability; natural balance and diversity of native species of the area, for the purposes of the long-term health of ecosystems; encourage a natural regeneration of native species to protect valuable native gene pools; not include the use of artificial chemical fertilizers, or synthetic chemical pesticides; address the need for local employment and community well being; sites of archaeological cultural and historical significance will be protected an will receive special consideration; be of the appropriate size, scale, time frame and technology for the parcel and will adopt an appropriate monitoring program, not only in order to avoid negative cumulative impact but also to promote beneficial cumulative effects of the forest; and ancient forests will be subject to moratorium on commercial logging during which time the institute will participate in research on the ramifications of management in these areas.

Sage explained why companies like SmartWood could have ultimately have a profound effect on forestry regulations.

"The government hasn't been able to change forest practices," Sage said. "The environmental movement hasn't been able to change forest practices. But the consumer, through the purchase of sustainably grown and certified materials, will be able to finally change forest practices." --TWN