The Growth of Eco-Friendly Lumber 

A West Oakland company is a national trendsetter in the sale of sustainably harvested wood and salvaged lumber.

Jeff and Marion Hunt have been selling eco-friendly lumber for more than a decade. In fact, their West Oakland business was one of the first in the nation to be certified by the respected Forest Stewardship Council, which ensures sustainable forestry and logging practices around the globe. But throughout the late 1990s and the early part of this decade, eco-friendly wood sales represented just a small portion of the Hunts' business, despite being in the heart of the environmentally conscious Bay Area. However, in the past few years, that has changed dramatically.

Last year, eco-friendly lumber certified by the stewardship council represented about 35 percent of the Hunts' total sales. "It's really growing," Jeff Hunt told Eco Watch. "Enthusiasm has changed a lot, and we've been growing larger and larger." Eco-friendly lumber sales have jumped so much that the Hunts decided last year to change their company's longtime name from Plywood and Lumber Sales to EarthSource Forest Products.

Traditionally, EarthSource's best customers for eco-friendly wood have been cabinet and furniture makers, but the company's retail lumber business on 28th Street near Mandela Parkway has begun to grow as well. In addition to selling lumber cut in sustainable ways, EarthSource carries wood reclaimed from old buildings and salvaged from fallen trees. The company is currently working with the state and federal governments on a salvaged wood project in the northern section of the Delta. The state is removing white oaks that were undermining Delta levees. So far, one of the Woods' largest customers for the white oaks has been the developer of the old Ford assembly plant in Richmond, who is turning them into large dining tables for a new cabaret.

Several years ago, EarthSource also completed a huge wood reclamation project on the ancestral estate of President Andrew Jackson in Tennessee. A tornado had toppled more than 1,200 aromatic cedars on the estate, and the Hunts turned the downed trees into lumber. Earthsource is almost completely sold out of the Jackson estate wood. One of its last customers was a Ventura company that is using the wood to create a doghouse as a gift for the Obama family's soon-to-be-named pooch.

EarthSource sells eco-certified wood for about the same price as traditional wood. But Jeff Hunt said the biggest barrier to increasing eco-friendly wood sales over the years has been convincing customers of the quality of lesser-known, sustainably harvested wood. Machiche, for example, is an excellent reddish-colored hardwood grown in Guatemala. But convincing Americans that it's a suitable replacement for mahogany, or some other more recognizable hardwood, has been a challenge. EarthSource's growth is proof that the challenge is not insurmountable, but until Americans realize that there are other woods suitable for their needs — beyond traditional favorites like mahogany, teak, redwood, cedar, and oak — then eco-friendly lumber sales are destined to remain a niche market, relegated to progressive sections of the country.

The Forest Stewardship Council, a consortium of environmentalists assembled by the Rainforest Alliance in the mid-'90s, certifies wood as being sustainably harvested by closely examining the forestry practices of a large area. Certification rules don't just prohibit clear-cutting. They also don't allow the selective removal of one particular type of tree from a forest or damage to the forest's canopy, because either can alter the forest's natural ecology or severely affect its health. For example, if 20 percent of the trees in a particular rainforest are mahogany, then only 20 percent of the total amount of trees cut from that forest can be mahogany, Hunt explained.

EarthSource gets much of its rainforest hardwoods from Guatemala, because the only legal logging in that country is stewardship council certified. By contrast, major lumber companies have blocked wide-scale environmentally sustainable harvesting in North America. "Weyerhaeuser, for example, doesn't believe in it because they want to be able to clear-cut," Hunt explained. Large lumber companies also have responded to the Forest Stewardship Council with certification programs of their own. They then market their wood as being "sustainably" harvested, even though it wasn't.

Plantation woods also are often advertised as being environmentally sustainable, but they're also typically not stewardship council certified, because they're usually the result of a forest that was cleared to plant a specific type of tree. The Hunts, however, own an interest in a stewardship council certified plantation in Guatemala. A friend owned a large piece of property that a previous owner had planted rubber trees on. When the rubber trees died, the Hunts' friend planted sustainably grown teak.

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