Categories
Community Report vol1:3

Six Words To Write On The Wall

D3’s summit conference in Ridgway, Colo. in July 2017 attracted about 200 progressive leaders from across western Colorado and the Front Range to discuss issues and mobilize for the 2018 midterm elections. (Photo by JT Thomas)

[blockquote3]Inside Western Colorado’s Indivisible D3 Movement[/blockquote3]

 

Call it fuel for the fire.

 

On the day Brett Kavanaugh becomes a Supreme Court justice, a glossy flyer lands in mailboxes across Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District – a vast rural district the size of Florida that covers most of western Colorado.

 

“DIANE MITSCH BUSH IS A SOCIALIST,” the flyer blares in bright red all-caps. On the flip side, it reiterates, “DIANE MITSCH BUSH wants to take our country down a path towards Socialism.”

 

There’s a photo of the 68-year-old Democratic candidate from Steamboat Springs – with her long gray hair and folded arms and serious smile and PhD in Sociology – who hopes to soon topple Republican incumbent Scott Tipton in her bid for U.S. Congress. A menacing red tower with giant loudspeakers has been photo-shopped in behind her, straight out of some weird North Korean nightmare.

 

Midterm season – with all its nasty-grams, fear-mongering and bizarre attack ads – is in full swing. And the foot soldiers of the Resistance in western Colorado have one thing to say: Bring it on.

 

Hundreds of grim-faced constituents packed into the Montrose High School gym in April 2017 for a town hall meeting with Congressman Scott Tipton. (Photo by Samantha Tisdel Wright)

 

AMERICAN GRAFFITI

 

Each of the 6,000 or so chapters of the Indivisible movement – the grassroots movement at the heart of a nationwide effort to thwart the Trump agenda – has its own unique story of origin.

 

This one started with a flurry of text messages around Thanksgiving time in 2016. United in outrage at the election of Trump “and this feeling that we had to do something,” five women from the small town of Ridgway, Colo. came up with a plan to sit in silence together for 30 minutes on the day after Trump’s inauguration.

 

Soon, their plan grew into a whole day of grassroots community action.

 

Word spread, as it has a way of doing in small towns. And on a snowy January day in 2017, as millions of protesters marched in cities around the world, dozens of Ridgway-ites also marched, then meditated by candlelight, and finally packed into the Kiva Room at the Chipeta Solar Springs Resort to break bread together in the Trumpian dusk.

 

Toward the end of the evening, a newcomer to the community – a distinguished former senior fellow at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University by the name of Dr. William Steding – offered a few words of courage to those in the room whose hearts were seized with panic.

 

“Vacation’s over,” he said. “You are right and you know you are right. Don’t be intimidated. Step out, stand up, speak up, act up. This will not be easy. Presidential power is very big. ‘Huge,’ as another person would say…”

 

Steding then conjured “six words to write on the wall” – six principals of resistance to buoy all would-be activists in the room:

 

[list extraclass=””]
[list_item icon=”ss-pointright”]Authentic: Embody your beliefs, convictions and purpose.[/list_item]
[list_item icon=”ss-pointright”]Resilience: Take a hit and bounce back.[/list_item]
[list_item icon=”ss-pointright”]Gonzo: Channel your inner Hunter S. Thompson. Understand the rules of the game so you know what not to do. The rules are designed to keep those who are in power in power.[/list_item]
[list_item icon=”ss-pointright”]Transcendent: Rise above the rabble. Don’t get mired and stuck in your own little social political bubble.[/list_item]
[list_item icon=”ss-pointright”]Stealth: High profiles are dangerous in periods of crisis, and the period of danger that follows. There are many people who enjoy health, wealth and happiness who never stick their head in front of the camera. Be like them.[/list_item]
[list_item icon=”ss-pointright”]Grace: Beautiful things are the most durable in world. Bring people together in a way that makes people say ‘Wow, that’s beautiful,’ or just plain cool. Bring people together in just the right way to ensure your destiny. Then, you are in a state of grace.[/list_item]
[/list]

 

The Kiva Room crackled with energy. You could almost smell the ozone in the air.

 

“We were so inspired that we felt compelled to move forward and create something that would be more lasting than this single day of action,” recalls Erika Moss Gordon, a poet, film festival coordinator and yoga teacher who helped organize the event.

 

The only question was: “What’s next?”

 

AUTHENTIC

Feb.7, 2017

 

The five friends met incessantly over the next few weeks to figure out the answer to that question. Then, on a cold, dark night in early February – 19 days into Trump’s presidency – they unveiled their plan to a standing-room-only crowd at the old Sherbino Theater in downtown Ridgway.

 

Drawing inspiration from the viral Indivisible Guide – the “Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda” that was sweeping the nation – the women proposed to create not just a local Indivisible chapter in Ouray County, but an umbrella organization for other fledgling resistance groups across western Colorado’s sprawling 3rd Congressional District.

 

There would be policy-tracking committees. Daily actions, distributed via email or text message. Field trips to congressional offices. Activist social hours. Craftivism – activism through artistic expression – and much, much more. All with the goal of becoming a Western Slope hub for resistance in the age of Trump.

 

Sure, it was ambitious. “But if the goal is to take action on a congressional level, it makes sense to represent the congressional district we are in,” the women argued. “There is a lot of power in connecting groups throughout our congressional district to work together. If we can create the structure to do that, we’ll be successful.”

 

Thankful for a direction in which to channel their free floating outrage, the crowd loosely organized itself into teams to help herd the movement forward. District 3 Indivisible Colorado was born – D3 for short. And 150 or so newly minted activists dispersed into the night.

 

Within a week or so, a sleek D3 Indivisible Colorado website had gone live, and the movement was off and running.

 

D3 Indivisible members let Congressman Scott Tipton know how they felt about his support for Trump’s agenda. (Photo by Samantha Tisdel Wright)

 

STEALTH

March 20, 2017

 

Day 60 of the Trump presidency finds the founders of D3 huddled around a kitchen table in a quiet Ridgway neighborhood for their weekly strategizing session and a shared meal of soup, bread and red wine. Candles twinkle on the table. Jazz music softly slinks around the edges of their conversation.

 

Ranging in age from 30s to 50s, these five women are many things – yoginis, graphic designers, a psychotherapist, a restaurant owner. Athletic, outdoorsy, college-educated, well-traveled. Some are moms. None are Ridgway natives. Indeed, they are part of the reason that Ouray County has shifted from red to bluish over the past dozen or so years.

 

The mountainous, rural county and its two small municipalities – Ridgway and Ouray – are a microcosm of Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District as a whole, with its roots in ranching and mining, growing outdoor-and-adventure-based tourism economy, and rapidly evolving demographics that have made Ridgway more progressive by the year, even as other corners of the county remain deeply conservative.

 

Old buildings that were featured in John Wayne’s True Grit have been transformed into coffeeshops, eateries and art galleries. Yoga and Pilates studios coexist with hardware stores, and the town boasts equal parts Asian restaurants and burger joints, liquor stores and pot shops. Marijuana farms flourish alongside historic ranches, as the cow pastures near town slowly fill up with neighborhoods like the one where the women of D3 have gathered on this night.

 

They are all a little stunned at how their original idea for 30 minutes of silence has grown so quickly into a collective yawp that sounds out over the rooftops of District 3 – one of the geographically largest congressional districts in the United States, where Tipton has held onto power for the past eight years.

 

“We did the march, had half an hour of silence, and community potluck and Dr. Steding gave this insane speech that became our manifesto,” recalls Gordon. “It has become more political than we knew it would be, and very quickly we have become the unifying voice of the district.”

 

None of the women have engaged in political activism until now, but they have a lot to show for their work over the past few months.

 

They’ve created a framework and a tool set for Indivisible groups throughout District 3. They’ve convened an advisory board headed up by Steding. They are fielding a slew of daily emails, and leading regular conference calls with other Indivisible chapters from Pueblo, Alamosa, Durango, Montrose, Grand Junction, Aspen, Paonia, Carbondale, the Yampa Valley, the Roaring Fork Valley, the San Luis Valley.

 

“Most of the groups are led by women, which is rad,” Gordon says.

 

She has become D3’s de facto spokeswoman. The rest of the women of D3 ask not to be identified for this story. “We are a wee bit shy about getting our personal names out there into the world,” one of them explains. “I think we all feel cautious in that regard.”

 

The business owners among them worry about burning bridges and scaring off potential customers and clients. More than that, though, they’re concerned for their personal safety, and that of their families, after the leader of the “Mesa County Deplorables” recently tweeted that D3 was an “anti-American, anti-rural, left-wing, Soros-funded extremist hate group.”

 

“All in the same tweet,” Gordon sighs. “They had undercover people come to our meetings. They posted pictures of our stuff on their social media.”

 

The women laugh about it now. But, Gordon adds, “I do check my door locks at night. More than once. I am conscious of that.”

 

“We need handles, code names,” one of the women suggests.

 

Gordon doesn’t think so. “Anonymity isn’t as powerful as putting your name on something,” she counters. “You have to stand up. I do believe this is not about us. It’s about the movement, not about the individuals. But I want to feel super-comfortable standing up and telling people what I believe right now. To avoid conflict – there’s no time for it anymore.”

 

[blockquote3]“We were so inspired that we felt compelled to move forward and create something that would be more lasting than this single day of action.” – Erika Moss Gordon[/blockquote3]

 

GONZO
part 1

April 7, 2017

 

Trump has been president for 78 days. D3 Indivisible members have been emailing and calling Congressman Tipton on a daily basis to express their outrage at Trump’s agenda. At best, they get nothing more than a generic email in return and an assurance on the phone that their messages will be relayed to the congressman.

 

Finally, Tipton agrees to hold an official town hall meeting – on friendly turf – in the conservative town of Montrose just north of Ridgway.

 

Dozens of progressives from across Colorado’s Western Slope crowd into a church in Montrose on the appointed day to review their game plan before heading over to the high school gym where the town hall is scheduled to take place.

 

An hour later, they’re jammed on bleachers like awkward students at a school assembly, armed with blue and red “AGREE” and “DISAGREE” print-outs that Gordon has passed around. The crowd numbers in the hundreds.

 

The conservative congressman from Cortez stands before them like the school principal, in his trademark jeans, blazer and white button-down shirt – blue eyes blazing, thatch of caramel-colored hair combed neatly to the side, polished cowboy boots widely planted on the polished gym floor.

 

A couple of uniformed policemen stand beside the push-bar doors. A “God Bless America” sign hangs above the drinking fountains in the nearby hallway.

 

Tipton smoothly delivers a few opening remarks then shifts into Q&A mode. His brawny field rep holds a microphone out in front of a petite, older woman in a white sweater who’s been selected to ask the first question.

 

“There are a lot of representatives who are not holding town halls and we are appreciative that you came,” she begins, politely, reading from her notes. “It seems your district may be becoming more progressive. How will you represent your district’s preferences? Will you poll us? How do you want us to let you know how we feel about individual issues as they come up over the next two years?”

 

Tipton tells her he may not see eye to eye on many issues with many of his constituents. “But it’s important to hear your thoughts,” he adds, and points out that he has several field offices across the district.

 

“Do you think the Russia-Trump connection should be fairly and vigorously pursued wherever it leads, with the only objective being total truth?” another questioner asks.

 

“Yes,” Tipton says, sending a tsunami of blue “AGREE” signs into the air. But he quickly loses traction with the crowd after that, as he alternately answers and deflects their barrage of questions on energy policy, environmental regulations, public lands, health care, budget priorities and ‘The Wall’, revealing his unwavering support for Trump’s agenda.

 

Gordon finally gets her turn at the mike. She could pass for a teenager in her favorite blue hoody, her long blond hair in a messy bun. “If Trump’s found guilty of collusion with the Russians, will you vote to impeach him? It’s a yes or no question,” she says.

 

“Let’s let the facts go where they may,” Tipton shrugs. “We’ll see what happens.”

 

And so it goes. For the progressives in the audience, the 2018 midterms – and the chance to vote Tipton out of office – can’t come soon enough.

 

Gonzo
part 2

April 20, 2017

 

Trump has been president for 91 days. And on 4/20 – the unofficial national holiday for cannabis culture – D3 Indivisible hosts a town hall meeting in Ridgway with Colorado’s junior U.S. Senator Cory Gardner.

 

The problem is – Gardner never accepted the invitation. Nobody thinks he will show up. And nobody is surprised when he doesn’t. Like many Republican members of Congress, he’s avoided his progressive constituents ever since Trump got elected, alleging that the flood of calls and emails to his office are coming from paid protesters as opposed to genuinely concerned constituents.

 

In spite of the fact that Gardner’s a no-show, a hundred or so people have poured into the Ouray County 4-H Event Center for the occasion, which is being live-streamed on Facebook.

 

Someone wheels in a caged chicken to serve as Gardner’s stand-in. The crowd cracks up as the chicken is humanely whisked away. Gordon then steps forward to bring them up-to-date on what D3’s leaders have been up to lately – including a recent sit-down with Gov. Hickenlooper at the capital in Denver.

 

Yet even as D3 Indivisible has gained recognition and momentum over the past few months, there is a growing sense of impending doom as Trump’s agenda continues to relentlessly unfold.

 

“We all are feeling the weight of the daily news, the tensions, the legislation that challenges our environment, the planet and woman’s rights,” Gordon acknowledges. “The battery of information is super-disheartening. We in the beginning had an initial wave of adrenalin, as all of you, I’m sure, have. But it’s become exhausting, and we have a long way to go.”

 

Local attorney Roger Sagal, a D3 advisory board member, takes it from there, doing his best to rally the troops.

 

“Let’s get a sense of who you are and why you came tonight,” he says. “In a very unscientific study… how many here among us live in Ouray County?” Most of the hands in the room go up.

 

“San Miguel County?” A few more hands. “They’re probably at 4/20,” Sagal jokes of the missing folks from nearby Telluride. But there are several people from Montrose County. One from Silverton. A handful from Palisade and Grand Junction.

 

“How many here are native-born Coloradans?” Sagal asks. “Native-born Western Slopers?” Just a smattering of hands.

 

“How many here are involved in the ranching industry? Mining?” No hands at all. “Anybody retired military?” A lone hand goes up in the air.

 

“Anybody here a paid radical despot because George Soros wrote them a check?” Everyone laughs, and Sagal ploughs ahead.

 

“How many of you woke up the day after the 2016 election and thought ‘Holy Shit?’” A sea of hands.

 

“How many woke up and thought to themselves, ‘We’ve got to do something about this.’” A sea of hands, again.

 

“That’s why you’re here,” Sagal says.

 

TRANSCENDENT

July 20-22, 2017

 

In the summer of 2017, six months into the Trump world order, D3 hosts its biggest gathering yet – a summit conference in Ridgway.

 

The event includes educational forums on topics like how to engage millennials, how to get out the vote, and Activism 101; a panel discussion on district issues specific to D3; and a candidate’s forum with Democratic hopefuls including Diane Mitsch Bush.

 

The summit is a huge success. “We expected 50 attendees and there were around 200,” Gordon says. “It was the first time in a long time that progressive leaders from the district and state came together to discuss issues.”

 

One of the most significant outcomes of the summit was the creation of a regional D3 board that continues to hold monthly meetings via conference call. Since the summit, D3’s leaders have also taken the time to carefully refine their policy statements in the lead-up to the 2018 midterm election.

 

“Drafting them was the work of over a year of listening and distilling – really having to think about our stance on things and needing to be succinct,” Gordon says. “Although we are nonpartisan, we need to have a candidate that supports our policy statements.”

 

Posted on the D3 Indivisible website, the statements reflect the group’s progressive stance on civil rights and the rule of law, education, energy and the environment, gun violence prevention, healthcare, immigration, national security, public lands, science, women’s rights and gender equality.

 

People in high places have taken notice. Colorado’s senior U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, a Democrat, recently traveled to Ridgway to sit with D3’s leaders around Gordon’s kitchen table. “He read our policy statements and said they are some of the best he’s ever read,” Gordon says with pride.

 

Now, Bennet’s office routinely reaches out to D3 to get input on issues he must consider in his role as senator.

 

RESILIENCE

Oct. 23, 2018

 

Trump has been president for 642 days. Not that anyone is keeping track of that time-smear anymore. These days, it’s all about looking forward – toward the midterm elections.

 

The outburst of political activism in western Colorado in the early months of Trump’s presidency seems like ancient history now. Success for progressives in 2018 hangs on the ability of groups like D3 Indivisible Colorado to take hit, after hit, after hit, from the barrage of daily news, and still bounce back – translating their early activism and energy into a blue wave at the ballot box.

 

In Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, Diane Mitsch Bush is outraising Tipton, and FiveThirtyEight (the national news organization that specializes in poll tracking) has declared the contest to be a “true coin flip”. Every vote – and ounce of activism – could make a difference.

 

But as the midterm elections loom ever-closer, attendance at monthly Indivisible meetings in Ouray County has dwindled to just a handful of diehard activists.

 

“It’s kind of disappointing,” says Taylor Chase, a young teacher who stepped up to run Ouray County’s local Indivisible chapter when D3’s founders shifted their focus toward running the regional umbrella organization. “But you have to tell yourself, ‘There is attrition. Okay. What do you do with the people you have around?’”

 

With the midterms just a few weeks away, the answer is pretty simple: get out the vote. As Chase puts it, “We have transitioned from doing a lot of policy tracking that resulted in ‘Call your legislators,’ to ‘Let’s get them out of office in the next few weeks.’”

 

Toward this end, the few remaining active members of Ouray County’s Indivisible chapter are laser-focused this fall on voter registration drives, voter outreach and getting people aware of the issues.

 

“Thinking about our little corner of the world here, it’s never been a huge bastion of political energy,” Chase reflects. “Sometimes it’s easy to say ‘We are going to hide away in our mountain corner and not deal.’ But from where we were two years ago, we are well ahead of the game. There are a lot more doors being knocked on, a lot more conversations being had.”

 

Attrition has also struck at the heart of D3; three of the five women who founded the organization back in the early days of the Trump administration have since stepped off the working board and are no longer actively involved.

 

“It’s exhausting,” Gordon says. “Everyone feels it. The initial rage and shock and despair was fantastic fuel…and then there is life. It’s totally okay. One of the great things that we have facilitated for each other, is that if someone needs to take a pause, that pause is 100 percent supported. Everyone does what they can. That’s the only sustainable way for all of us to engage. We have to parent. We have to work. We have to live our lives.”

 

But Gordon is still all in. “I need my kids to know I did everything I could. You know?”

 

Beyond its core group of founders, the regional D3 board is still very much alive, holding regular conference calls and partnering with other progressive organizations such as the Western Independence Project to increase its reach and resonance across the state.

 

Perhaps most importantly, D3 has recently hired Neal Morgan, an experienced electoral field program coach who worked on the Obama and Hillary Clinton presidential campaigns, to train Indivisible leaders across CD3 how to increase voter turnout.

 

Morgan focuses strictly on the two things that have been proven to make the most difference in winning elections: training volunteers to have authentic conversations with other voters – by knocking on doors or making phone calls – to persuade and mobilize them to vote; and building capacity by getting those same volunteers to bring even more people into the process to do the same thing.

 

“He talks a lot about the things we do that are wastes of our time – how many meetings do we need to have?” Gordon says. “We need to collaborate. But, people need to be voting. We need to get everyone we can to vote. And the second the 2018 election is over, we have to regroup for 2020. Big time.”

 

William Steding will be there to help. The man who helped launch D3 with his fiery speech back in early 2017 sees the group’s current mission and platform as a remarkable achievement. “The energy of outrage has been channeled into meaningful and responsible political engagement,” he says. “D3 Indivisible is a stellar example of how democracy is supposed to work.”

 

Senator Cory Gardner didn’t show up for a town hall meeting hosted by D3 in Ridgway, so the 100 or so attendees shared their thoughts with him in writing. (Photo by Samantha Tisdel Wright)

GRACE

The present

 

As the women of D3 have worked to transform the political landscape of western Colorado over the past two years, their activism has also transformed their interior landscapes in mysterious ways – as Gordon recently discovered when her car broke down and she needed a two-hour tow.

 

When she got into the tow truck with the driver, she became uncomfortably aware of an initial wave of judgement toward him – she could tell they belonged to different political tribes. But as they started talking, they discovered that they had something in common: they were both single parents.

 

“And right away we got into a very intimate conversation about our lives, kids, things we had to overcome as parents,” Gordon says. “He told me some incredible stories. We immediately were very human with each other.”

 

Eventually, inevitably, the conversation came around to politics. In the past, Gordon says, she would have backpedaled. But because of her activism over the past two years, she went right into it. “There was no bullshit,” Gordon says. “He spoke his truth. I spoke my truth. It was totally okay. It was a seminal experience for me.”

 

Gordon takes a deep breath, glances out her kitchen window at the ragged meringue of mountains on the horizon. November is coming.

 

“I think what we need to do is we need to come toward each other,” she says. “And that is actually the most important thing.”

 

Categories
Environment Report vol1:1

Building Green Can Be Bewildering: The Eco-Lumber Conundrum

Illustration by Stephen Rockwood
Illustration by Blake Suarez

 

A globetrotting couple decides to settle down and build a home in rural southwestern Colorado. It’s a big decision, and they want to do it right. They choose an idyllic setting on a country road in Ouray County, surrounded by lush, irrigated ranch land, with the Uncompahgre River flowing nearby and gorgeous mountain views in all directions. Not only do they want something that is beautifully located and beautifully designed; it is also important to them for their new home to be environmentally sound. So along with many other eco-friendly options, their architect encourages them to look into using certified lumber – lumber that has earned a seal of approval from a third-party certifying organization as coming from responsibly managed forests.

That sounds like a no-brainer.

The couple does a little research about the Forest Stewardship Council, one of the best-known and most widely respected organizations that certifies lumber and other wood products from around the world. Then they call up a large commercial lumberyard in Montrose, CO, a commercial hub 35 miles to the north, to see if they carry FSC certified lumber.

The guy they talk to doesn’t know what that is.

The next lumber yard they call has actually heard of FSC lumber, and says they can get it, but quotes a price that is three-and-a-half times more expensive than the uncertified equivalent due to shipping costs – because, they say, it would have to be trucked to Montrose from a lumberyard in Durango, CO (100 miles and three mountain passes to the south).

That kind of a price markup seems absurd, and is way beyond the couple’s means. But by now, they have become obsessed with solving the problem. Surely there must be someplace in Colorado where they can get certified lumber at a reasonable cost. They broaden their search, get in touch with some lumberyards in the Denver area. And it’s the same story everywhere they call  – the lumberyards don’t carry it any more because there is no demand and it’s too expensive.

The whole experience leaves this well-intentioned couple – who asked to remain unnamed in this story to protect their privacy – scratching their heads about the Forest Stewardship Council; who are they, and did they create this standard to be commercially viable, not just environmentally pure?

 

Photo by Alec Jacobson

 

CREATING AN INCENTIVE TO DO THE RIGHT THING

The Forest Stewardship Council was founded in 1993 on the heels of the Rio Earth Summit and pioneered third-party forest certification. A group of environmental NGOs, alarmed by the rate of global deforestation, teamed with industry leaders in Europe to see if they could improve the way forests are managed by setting global ecological standards for the cutting and milling of timber.

Rather than taking a regulatory approach like the Clean Water Act or Endangered Species Act, the FSC is a voluntary, market-based system that tries to use demand to create an incentive for land managers to adopt a higher environmental standard than they otherwise would.

“We create an incentive for people to do the right thing,” explained Brad Kahn, communications director for Forest Stewardship Council US. “Ultimately our mission is about protecting forests.”

FSC has three certification systems that help it to accomplish this mission: Forest Management certification, Chain of Custody certification and Product Label certification.

Forest Management certification looks at what it means to manage a forest well, from identifying habitat for rare and endangered species, to leaving buffers of trees to keep waterways from being destroyed by logging activities, to tightly restricting the use of herbicides that the timber industry sometimes uses to kill off species that compete with their trees of choice.

A variety of auditors, such as the Rainforest Alliance, examine the work of FSC forestry members, determining whether landowners are meeting the FSC standards. If they do, the wood they produce receives FSC’s Forest Management certification. As soon as ownership of harvested wood changes hands, it goes into FSC’s Chain of Custody (CoC) certification standard, which traces the path of products from forests through the supply chain, verifying that FSC-certified material is identified or kept separated from non-certified material throughout the chain. Any company in this supply chain, from harvesters to retailers, needs to be FSC certified themselves, in order to be able to label or promote their products as FSC certified.

If all of the steps have been followed properly, the end product – be it a dining table or a box of tissues or a plank of lumber – then wins the FSC product label.

Today, Kahn said, FSC certifies 500 million acres of forest around the world, representing some 10 percent of working forest land – more in some countries and less in others. In the US and Canada, 170 million acres of forest are certified – 130 million acres in Canada, and the remaining 35 million in the US.

Although the average consumer might not know it, there is a vast swath of products bearing the FSC label – from Patagonia’s first FSC-certified wetsuit (made from latex that comes from FSC-certified forests) to Ben & Jerry’s ice cream cartons and myriad other solid wood or pulp and paper products. Huge companies like Unilever, Proctor & Gamble and Ikea all use FSC certification for at least some of their products.

“In the US the pulp and paper sector is growing more dramatically than the solid wood sector, but we are working hard to grow the solid wood side,” Kahn said. “FSC has have reached the point now where it is in every major store. You can find FSC products wherever you are shopping.”

Well, maybe not everywhere – as the aforementioned couple in Ouray County can attest – especially when it comes to lumber.

 

LOST ITS PIZZAZ?

Strait Lumber was the first FSC-certified lumber yard in the Denver Metro area, but it dropped its certification and stopped carrying the product last year. “The value is just not there, and it is kind of a headache, to be honest with you,” said Strait Lumber general manager Tyler Korbe.

The FSC Chain of Custody certification is work-intensive to obtain and expensive to maintain, he explained, and FSC inventory can’t be co-mingled with non-FSC-certified products. This leads to price markups that many consumers find untenable – especially when it comes to big purchases such as the lumber package for a new house.

While Korbe says there is still is a local market in the commercial construction sector in the Denver Metro area, he sees FSC-certified lumber as possibly going by the wayside in the future.

“All indications I witness point in that direction,” he said. “It is something that has definitely lost its pizzazz. I used to do two or three orders a week and now I don’t even get an inquiry all year.”

But businesses can play an important role in whether or not customers buy their FSC products, Kahn countered.

“Across all businesses, we are finding the companies that are successful are the ones that are leaning into it,” he said. “They are thinking about who their customers might be. They are not just waiting for someone to walk through the door. They are going to people – whether that’s architects, builders or owners, and saying ‘This is what we’ve got, here’s the lead time, here’s the pricing,’ and they are actually making sales.”

 

COVERED IN COBWEBS

Indroneil Ganguly, an assistant professor at the University of Washington’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences and associate director of the school’s Center for International Trade in Forest Products, concurs that the FSC system is viable – if there is demand.

Ganguly has seen up close how FSC certification works, from the timber plantations of the Pacific Northwest to the jungles of southeast Asia. When it comes to Chain of Custody certification, he said, most facilities such as sawmills or furniture factories in the developing world process both certified and uncertified wood on the same machinery, running separate lines and maintaining physical separation between certified and uncertified wood by keeping the certified wood in a shed until a special order comes in.

This may sound pretty complicated, but “if people in the developed world demand FSC, then the guy with the sawmill in Vietnam will run an FSC line,” Ganguly pointed out. “The problem is that there simply isn’t enough demand for FSC-certified products. They have the shed, and it’s covered in cobwebs.”

Another flaw Ganguly sees with the FSC system has to do with lack of awareness among consumers. “I teach this class of undergrads who have some environmental interest,” he said. “And when I ask ‘How many of you have heard of FSC?’ perhaps only ten percent of them raise their hands. If that’s the awareness level of the ‘environmentally aware’ population, what would be the awareness of the general population who don’t think about the environment so much?”

 

Photo by Alec Jacobson
Photo by Alec Jacobson

 

A Clear-Cut Alternative

Apart from the lack of awareness, perhaps the biggest challenge FSC faces is the commercial timber industry’s competing Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) certification system, created by the American Forest and Paper Association the year after FSC was founded.

Many environmentalists have denounced the SFI as a fake eco-label that greenwashes forest-degrading timber-cutting practices. Among other things, they say, SFI certification allows for large clear cuts, the replacement of complex forest ecosystems with monocultures/plantations, genetically modified organisms, and logging practices that harm water quality and imperil fish and wildlife by using hazardous chemicals such as the endocrine-disrupting herbicide Atrazine.

SFI supporters, meanwhile, counter that SFI program participants have invested over $1.1 billion in forest research, and over $55 million to support community programs such as education and training for loggers and foresters. Timber companies must earn profits, they say, to keep the industry thriving, and in order to do so, they need to rely on practices such as clear-cutting and herbicide application, in order to produce ongoing jobs in the woods and revenues from timber-cutting while thwarting pressure to convert forest lands into subdivisions or other developments.

In spite of its drawbacks, even some opponents acknowledge that the SFI system has improved over time and is at least a step in the right direction. SFI-certified lumber has gained a broad market share in the US and an international seal of approval from the industry-friendly umbrella program, Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification.

Photo by Samantha Wright
Photo by Samantha Wright

It’s also won the seal of approval from more and more budget-conscious homeowners, as Tyler Korbe of Strait Lumber can attest.

“Every homeowner we had, we would estimate their total lumber cost through our regular SFI-certified product versus what the price of FSC would cost, and every single one of them who had a green idea in mind said ‘We can’t justify the additional cost, when it’s the same lumber,’” noted Korbe. “A board is a board is a board, and once you put it on paper, people ask themselves, ‘Should I pay 30 percent more for the exact same thing?’ Most people aren’t going to do that.”

FSC, meanwhile, maintains its coveted status – for now – as the only certification that is fully accepted by the prestigious and lucrative US Green Building Council LEED program. But even here, SFI is making inroads, winning a pilot LEED alternative compliance path from the USGBC in 2016, along with several other competing certification programs.

“There is a lot of infighting. The politics is brutal – it’s a full-on turf war between certification lobbies,” said Ganguly. “If you ask an environmentalist, ‘Is FSC better than SFI?’ they will probably say yes. But, the difference in how much good they are doing for the environment is minimal here in the US, and more significant in the tropics.”

 

GREENING THE NEXT GENERATION

Kahn is the first to admit that it’s been an uphill battle to create a robust and sustainable market for FSC certified lumber in the housing sector. It’s a multifaceted problem, he says, whose roots can be traced not just to FSC’s rigorous certification process and competition from SFI, but also to prevailing consumer and business attitudes, and trends in the housing market and construction industry.

Most home buyers in the US would rather get more house for their dollar than more environmental value, Kahn said, and large-scale homebuilders are simply catering to this desire. “It’’s been tough, frankly,” he admitted. “You drive through any suburb in America, and you see massive homes on quarter-acre lots. That’s what the market is. We haven’t really cracked that nut, to be honest.”

(Housing data from the US Census Bureau underscores this trend, showing that new US homes today are on the average 1,000 square feet larger than in 1973 and living space per person has nearly doubled.)

In the US, Kahn acknowledged, the notion of asking for environmental values in the construction of a home is still growing. But he is hopeful about the next generation of homebuyers. “Those values are permeating decisions millennials are making about what they buy and where they spend their time and money,” he said. “Hopefully that will translate into what they are asking about their homes.”

Global climate change could also play a factor in public perception of the value of green lumber in the near future. Kahn points to a newly released study from the Portland, Oregon based environmental watchdog group Ecotrust showing that FSC-certified forest management sequesters anywhere from 35-100 percent more carbon than industrial management. <

“We see FSC as a tool for tackling climate change,” Kahn said. “If we had a carbon tax, a national cap and trade system and forestry was included, there would be a significant new revenue stream for land owners to do the right thing.”

 

Photo by Alec Jacobson
Photo by Alec Jacobson

 

Going Local

Of course, eco-certified lumber isn’t the only consideration when it comes to building an environmentally friendly house. There are plenty of other ways to look at sustainability.

In some cases, the greenest choice might be to opt for lumber that has been locally or regionally harvested and processed, whether or not it bears a third-party certification label.

In southwestern Colorado, Phil Gould has carved out a niche harvesting and milling trees that have died from insect infestation and disease. “The best analogy (for eco-certified wood) would be organic food,” he said. “You can get a lot of stuff that is labeled organic, but it’s not the same as going down to the farmers market and buying fruits and vegetables that were grown right in this area.”

Gould points to transportation as a significant environmental culprit in today’s timber market. “That’s where most of the environmental damage comes from – trucking and moving stuff around,” he asserted. “It seems like the closer to the source, the better. People did that for hundreds of years until huge mills opened up in the Northwest and that became a standard.”

Another, lesser-known benefit of harvesting local beetle kill is that it is already quite dry, so it doesn’t have to be dry-kilned prior to the milling process. “That’s a huge savings in resources,” Gould pointed out. “All that stuff in the Northwest is incredibly wet and has to be kiln-dried using millions of gallons of propane or wood burners”

Yet in spite of its obvious environmental benefits, Gould has not seen huge demand for his product on Colorado’s Western Slope. “It’s more of a novelty,” he said. “People seem to be more into the reclaimed stuff that is hundreds of years old. It’s more acceptable and trendy.”

Even when customers want to use locally sourced material, it isn’t always that easy to get ahold of. Clint Estes, the only LEED-certified contractor in Ouray County, related the story of a recent client who wanted to source local lumber for his new home in Ridgway from a mill in Montrose that processes wood harvested on the nearby Uncompahgre Plateau.

“But none of the suppliers in Montrose sell locally milled products,” Estes said. “We had to source his wood from suppliers 200 miles away, even though it was logged on the Plateau.”

As for FSC lumber, “I always offer it to my clients as an option, and basically, it proves to be a cost block,” Estes said. “I’ve put pressure on local lumberyards, but that’s as far as I’ve gone, working with my local salesman and expressing what’s important.”

Typically, he said, he gets a noncommittal response. “’Sounds good – we will look into it.’ But then it’s business as usual. For them, it’s not broken so why change it? It’s not going to get them a bigger return.”

When it comes to green lumber, Estes concluded, it’s up to consumers to drive the market to the point where it becomes more reasonably priced and more broadly available.“ What it ultimately takes is buy-in from not only the builder but the clients, the people building the houses,” he said.

Boulder-based environmental design consultant David Johnston made the same point fifteen years ago in an opinion piece for Mother Earth Living magazine.

“Certified wood needs to fly out of the bins while the ‘regular’ wood sits there untouched,” Johnston wrote. “Every wood product we buy needs to be identified as sustainably harvested, or we will tell the store manager we’re taking our business elsewhere. You would be surprised how few inquiries it takes before a lumberyard or a hardware store starts buying certified products. Always ask. Always bring the issue to the manager. Write letters to the company buyers or, even better, to the CEO.”

 

THE CARBON QUESTION

For many green-minded homeowners, their new home’s carbon footprint and energy efficiency are more important considerations than where their lumber came from. And those considerations can be just as complex and bewildering as the certified wood conundrum.

“I like to approach it from an embodied energy carbon footprint standpoint rather than pure efficiency,” Estes said. “If you are building to a high efficiency standard, that doesn’t mean you are lowering your carbon footprint. Instead of using two inches of foam board, you have four to five inches under the slab – more and more foam and petroleum products. It would be interesting to do a carbon calculation of a LEED certified home. How many years would it take to offset?”

Then there’s the whole other end of the spectrum– building with recycled concrete blocks or straw bales. “All of those products have limitations, but they are 100 percent post consumer byproducts or recycled products,” Estes said. “There is a lot to it, a lot of facets to consider.”

No matter which way you slice it, building a home is a resource-intensive process that is going to have a lasting impact on the skin of the planet.

“When I have a client driving a Prius and they say they want their house to be environmentally neutral, it is not feasible,” said Ridgway builder Brad Wallis, a proponent of a high-efficiency European design criteria known as Passive House that lessens the overall impact a home has on the environment – not just as it is being built, but over the entire course of its lifetime.<

“Cement, polystyrene foam and wood, they are all products of a consuming process, not a neutral process,” Wallis said. “But if it’s done well, and it conserves energy and doesn’t need to be replaced in 30 years, you are doing the best you can in a generally consumptive process.”

 

BALANCING THE EQUATION

In the midst of such a tangled web of options, what is an environmentally conscientious yet budget-conscious homeowner in southwestern Colorado (or anywhere else, for that matter) supposed to do?

To help balance their own cost-versus-environmental equation, our couple in Ouray County put solar panels on their house – expensive, yes, but over the long term they anticipate the panels will pay for themselves in saved energy costs. They also looked into using reclaimed wood from midwestern barns – super environmentally conscious, but aesthetically unsuitable for the clean, modern look of the house that they were building.

In the end, they decided to go with SFI-certified lumber instead of the more expensive FSC. “It’s a much lower standard,” they acknowledged. “But we thought it’s still better than nothing. The guy at the local lumber yard told us all their stuff is SFI-certified. Maybe that is a common standard now. It seemed very reasonably priced.”

Their house isn’t finished yet, but “so far it’s looking really nice,” they added. “We have done a good job of balancing things we care about without going way over budget.”

 

Photo by Alec Jacobson
Photo by Alec Jacobson