Sustainable Forestry at Columbia Forest Products

From left to right: Jenny, Arjun, Rachel, Siyu, Suzanna, Andrew, Jim, Yimeng
Dogwood staff and interns with Jim Sitts – our tour guide for the day. From Left to Right: Jenny, Arjun, Rachel, Siyu, Suzanna, Andrew, Jim, Yimeng

“Nobody goes out and seeks to do things better if there’s no incentive. Our incentive was to stay in business,” said Jim Sitts of Columbia Forest Products, in regards to Columbia’s continually increasing commitment to sustainable forestry. Columbia Forest Products is the largest decorative hardwood plant in the United States. They consist of approximately 300 employees and are entirely employee-owned. Jim Sitts has worked at Columbia for 44 years and currently serves as the Appalachian Timber Manager. When Dogwood Alliance staff and interns visited the company’s mill, he showed the group how the company incorporates sustainability into its lumber practices.

Columbia Forest Products
Unprocessed lumber piles, kept soft by sprinklers.

“Columbia is an environmentally conscious company. People pay attention to that,” Jim explained as he detailed how they incorporate Forest Stewardship Council standards into their production processes. The Forest Stewardship Council is an organization that has created a set of standards which, when met, allow lumber companies to label their products with the highly-respected FSC label. FSC standards require lumber to be produced in environmentally, socially and economically sustainable ways.

Forest Stewardship Council Labels
Forest Stewardship Council Labels

FSC offers both a “pure” label and a “mixed” label. The pure label can be applied to wood products produced completely in accordance to FSC standards. The mixed label applies to products comprising no less than 70% pure FSC wood, and the remainder “controlled” wood. Controlled wood must also meet certain sustainability standards, but these are less rigorous. Columbia is able to put a mixed label on 15% of the products that they sell.

In order to apply the FSC label to their products, lumber mills are required to be audited yearly. These audits happen through third party organizations that are contracted by FSC. Columbia is audited by the Rainforest Alliance. They are audited once yearly on their mills and on their forest management, as these two aspects of production must be checked by different parties with expertise in each area. If auditors find that a lumber mill is doing something noncompliant with FSC standards, the breach is labeled as either minor or major. Minor breaches may be fixed any time within the following year, but major breaches must be fixed within thirty days. Failure to fix a non-compliant practice within the designated timeframe will render the mill ineligible to use the FSC label.

Production at Columbia Forest Products
Standardizing the harvested logs; removing irregularities.

While pure FSC products can be sold at higher prices than uncertified lumber, mixed-label products cannot. When asked how Columbia benefits from selling mixed products despite this, Jim explained, “It’s market access….I don’t think we make any more money in the end on FSC.”  Essentially, the FSC label adds brand value. Jim, and likely everyone at Columbia, gets satisfaction in their commitment to sustainability. “To my knowledge…we may be the only FSC certified plywood in North America,” he proudly stated.

Facilities at Columbia Forest Products
The final plywood product; checking for consistency and quality.

Columbia Forest Products and Dogwood Alliance have had a positive working relationship in recent years, as Columbia is collaborating on the Carbon Canopy Project, further demonstrating their commitment to sustainability.

Some of Dogwood's lovely interns enjoying the field trip.  From left to Right:  Rachel, Arjun, Siyu
Dogwood’s lovely interns enjoying the field trip. From left to Right: Rachel, Arjun, Siyu

This was an eye-opening trip for Dogwood’s five summer interns. Although it was difficult for the environmentalists among us to see the industrial processing of trees on such a large scale, it’s reassuring to know that Columbia Forest Products puts so much effort into sustainability and is a leader in the field.  We enjoyed the chance to get out of the office for a day and see first-hand why Dogwood does what it does!


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