Street-smart tips for sourcing Maine lumber

By Lloyd C. Irland

Lloyd Irland is president of The Irland Group in Wayne, Maine. He has conducted FSC certifications on major timberland properties around the Northeast, and written academic articles about sustainability and certification of forest management.

Increasingly, builders, architects, homeowners, and contractors are looking to purchase locally-produced wood that is harvested from sustainably-managed forests. They are also interested in supporting small local businesses. In a perfect world this would be easy. Unfortunately, in our current system it is not. But we can provide some guidance for those seeking local wood.

By “local wood,” we are referring to wood harvested within 500 miles of central Maine. Within this region, ownership and forestry rules vary greatly, as do tree species. Moreover, a mill that is 450 miles away could easily be buying from outside the 500-mile range. And veneer mills haul from as far as 300 to 600 miles.

When we speak of “certified” wood, we mean wood produced from lands that have been audited under one of several third-party certification systems. Leading systems include the FSC, SFI, and Tree Farm system. These systems can supply documents about their operations, and many, but not all, can supply their customers with on-product labels. To reach a consumer with an on-product label, lumber companies, manufacturers, distributors and retailers must employ a “chain of custody” tracking system to create an auditable paper trail from the stump to the final purchaser.

For some products that are grade-stamped, individual pieces of lumber can be stamped with a certified label, but this only applies to a few types of framing lumber and at present is rare in other product categories, as it is complex and difficult to manage chain of custody tracking through a multiple-level supply chain. 

So, how can I tell if my wood is local, and if it’s “green certified?” To answer this question, we need first to supply some basic facts about how wood moves from the forests where it grows to the jobsites where people use it. We will have to make general statements about matters that get complicated quickly. 

First, most wood grown in Southern Maine, where the small local mills are located, is not certified under any formal program. Wood from eastern and northern Maine is often certified and sold to large mills that distribute regionally.

Second, much of the wood harvested from certified forests does not reach end-users with a label due to the complexities of the marketing chain and the costs and difficulty of keeping certified sources separate from uncertified ones.

Remember your last walk through a lumber yard or a big box home center? Boards of various species, lengths, and widths are laid out in huge storage sheds, neatly labelled so workers can pull them to fill orders. Racks of moldings come in many different patterns, lengths, and species of wood. There may be hundreds of items. Can you imagine what would be involved in keeping duplicate storage, one set for certified products, and one for non-certified? It is an unappealing prospect for the retailer. 

Likewise, a sawmill may process multiple species and produce multiple products. Because it’s rare for a sawmill to supply itself with 100% certified logs, they would have to store the certified wood separately, and then see to it that after processing, it all went into its own separate pile again, a system that is not realistic for most mills.

Some manufactured items, such as flooring or cabinet doors, carry certification labels on the product. Unfortunately, many of these products are imported.

In retail stores, you will see many labels claiming that the wood is grown and harvested “sustainably,” which may be true. But unless a major certifier’s label is on it, it is difficult to verify the claim.

Forest owners do not sell all their wood to the same list of buyers under long-term contracts. The mills change their mixes of products and customers from month to month as markets change. A tree might go through three to six different companies before a builder takes delivery of a load of lumber. Short “supply chains” of only a few handlers between the stump and the builder do exist. However, because supply chains are not rigid, most retailers cannot tell you the origin of your wood.

One way to ensure you are buying locally is to buy direct, from the primary mills. It takes more work and planning, as larger mills do not typically do retail business and are set up to ship truckloads or flatcars of wood. This does not suit the requirements of most individual builders and remodeling contractors, which is why we have retailers. On the other hand, small local mills can do retail, but they may not always perform drying or other needed steps.

As you can see, we are at a very early stage of “greening the supply chain” for wood products. 

Homeowners, builders and contractors face choices and will have to do a bit of homework if they want to support local wood and landowners who have undergone certification. Every time another home is built with an effort towards responsibly-sourcing wood, it supports an improved supply chain for the future. Acknowledging that we cannot do it perfectly yet is the first step toward doing better. But here are some thoughts for where to start.

Accept that choices are necessary. If you decide
you will only use certified wood, you are usually deciding
not to use locally-produced wood, and vice versa.
Constraining choices to certified-only may lead you
to buy value-added products from offshore that use
management practices you may not like.

Buy direct if you can. This will entail homework
and advance arrangements. But it can be a satisfying
way to advance the local economy while playing
an active role in sourcing materials for your project.

Understand certifications. Websites of certifying
systems are better for checking a known supplier
than for sourcing products.

Avoid tropical woods. Tropical woods are popular, but
nobody really needs them. It is rare for tropical woods
to be sustainably-harvested and manufactured. And
domestic woods from the northeast can be stained or
finished to resemble the colors of any tropical species.

Share information with others. Pass along the
supplier/product ideas you develop, and check with
colleagues to share experiences.

Use on-site wood. In new construction, use on-site
wood whenever possible.

Note the species. Maine is home to such species
as Pine, Spruce, Maple and Oak. However, sometimes
extra scrutiny is needed because Maine species can
grow as far away as Minnesota, Ontario or West Virginia.
So, you can’t always determine local origin by
knowing the species. Some species are clearly not
locally-grown, such as Douglas fir, southern yellow
pine, holly or hickory – avoid these. And watch for informal
or misleading common names of wood species.

Choose salvaged. Wherever possible, use salvaged
urban wood or recycled lumber from deconstructed
buildings. This material is almost always
local, and its source should be readily ascertainable.

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