By RAY HENRY
ATLANTA (AP) -- One of the nation's largest wood and fiber producers, Georgia-Pacific LLC, will stop buying timber from environmentally sensitive areas and discourage landowners from clearing hardwood forests under a new policy, it said Tuesday.
Georgia-Pacific, the largest manufacturer of plywood in the U.S. market, announced the plan with three environmental groups. Activists said the company's new policy goes a step beyond conservation policies set by other firms by using a scoring system backed by satellite and other mapping technologies to identify protected forests.
The policy is a product of seven years of discussions started when the Rainforest Action Network pressured major Georgia-Pacific customers including Home Depot and Lowe's over their wood supply. Georgia-Pacific opened talks that eventually involved a trio of environmental organizations.
"We continue to believe it is possible to operate in a way that is environmentally responsible and also economically sound," said Jim Hannan, Georgia-Pacific's CEO and president. "This policy also gives us the opportunity to address issues of increasing interest to our customers and to consumers."
The policy is nonbinding, so Georgia-Pacific faces no penalties other than possible embarrassment should it fail to meet its goals. Company executives will not call the policy an agreement, and they are still deciding how it will be enforced.
Still, the environmental groups involved in the negotiations consider it a step forward and have been promised annual updates from the company.
The policy sets two primary principles. First, Georgia-Pacific will not buy pine fiber from lands that were formerly natural hardwood forests and were cleared after July 2008 to plant pine plantations, a process called conversion. Conservationists put a high priority on stopping conversion since it destroys habitats that plants and wildlife depend on.
"The conversion of hardwood forests to pine plantations means that you lose a significant portion of the natural biodiversity found in those forests," said Debbie Hammel, a senior resource specialist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the groups that helped negotiate the policy.
Georgia-Pacific estimates there are 90 million acres of hardwood forests in the area it operates, primarily from Texas and Mississippi to Virginia, although the company does not necessarily buy lumber from all that land.
Before-and-after satellite imagery will be used to help detect changes in forest composition.
The second principle was to label some areas "endangered forests" and "special areas" that Georgia-Pacific has agreed will be off-limits. Georgia-Pacific will identify these lands using a scoring system that takes into account concentrations of rare and endangered species, rare forest types, roadless areas and places already afforded government protection.
Early work conducted in the mid-Atlantic region, from the tidewaters in Virginia to roughly Savannah, shows that 612,000 acres will be considered endangered forests or special areas under the new rules.
While the heart of the policy applies to logging in the continental United States, Georgia-Pacific also said it will not procure wood fiber from the Tongass National Forest in Alaska until roadless areas there are permanently protected. It will not purchase native tropical wood from sources in Indonesia -- a country trying to combat intense deforestation -- until the company has assurances the wood will be harvested legally.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.