Anyone driving down Georgia’s highways knows it’s like a painting brought to life — tall, vibrant, strong pine trees line the road, setting the backdrop for a pleasant journey. But forests are more than a pretty view — covering two-thirds of our state, Georgia’s forests serve as critical infrastructure, the backbone to our way of life. They keep the air clean, provide clean water, and aid in the building of our homes, churches, businesses and schools.

As a $23.6 billion dollar-a-year generator to the state’s economy, timber is among our most highly valued resources. For over a century, this plentiful, renewable and natural resource has sustained jobs. In fact, forest-related business employs over 108,000 Georgians, making it the second largest industry in the state.

The only way to continue to see the valuable impact that Georgia forests provide to our communities is to ensure healthy markets for forest products. That is why I commend Gov. Nathan Deal for promoting the use of products from Georgia’s responsibly managed forests in state construction — and calling for equal recognition of all credible forest certification standards, a tool to ensure forest products come from responsibly managed forests. Specifically, his recent executive order states that, “any new or expanded state building shall incorporate ‘Green Building’ standards that give certification credits equally to forest products grown, manufactured and certified under the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), American Tree Farm System (ATFS), and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).”

In a time when we are fighting to preserve and create employment in the United States, this order protects and develops jobs in Georgia’s forest industry. Green building represents an important market for Georgia’s forests. Wood’s inherent properties — as a sustainable, natural and renewable resource — make it an excellent environmental choice for any new construction or renovation, provided it comes from a responsible source. Such responsible sources include the 25 million acres of Georgia forests that are sustainably managed every day, largely by private landowners and family forest owners — like my wife and me. Together, we own and manage Charlane Plantation near Macon, Ga. With our lands ATFS certified, I know first-hand the passion that Georgia’s forest landowners have for the land, as well as the responsible forest management practices we are committed to in order to ensure healthy, vibrant and productive forests for generations to come. Likewise, the SFI standard is integral to supporting responsible forestry at home and brings wood from ATFS-certified forests to markets.

It’s time that SFI- and ATFS-certified lands get the recognition they deserve, as in this executive order. But there’s more to be done. While a number of green building programs available in North America promote the environmental benefits of wood with an inclusive approach to forest certification, the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) LEED standard recognizes only the FSC forest certification standard. As a result, under the current LEED standard, three-quarters of certified forests in North America — and almost 99 percent of Georgia’s certified forests — are ineligible for LEED’s wood certification credit. Yet almost 90 percent of FSC-certified forests are outside the U.S. Georgia builders should be able to build with ATFS- and SFI-certified wood and get credit for it in LEED.

Gov. Deal is not alone with his leadership. Maine Gov. Paul LePage issued a similar executive order calling for equal recognition of all credible forest certification standards in state construction. In addition to their leadership and that of 14 other governors, 89 members of Congress representing districts with significant rural or forestry interests have sent letters to the USGBC urging changes to the treatment of forest products under LEED, including recognition of SFI and other credible certification standards.

The future is decided now. Georgia’s private forest landowners need an incentive to nurture our forests, but promoting only one forest certification standard does them injustice because that limits how they can serve their customers. Although LEED is making improvements that would allow more consideration and recognition of the environmental benefits of wood, much more needs to happen before the rest of these forest certification standards are fully integrated into LEED’s standards. Recognizing all forest certification standards not only contributes to the future of our forests, it enables Georgia landowners to increase their competitive position at home and across the world.

Chuck Leavell is the keyboardist for the Rolling Stones and the co-founder of the Mother Nature Network. He is also the author of several books including his most recent, "Growing a Better America: Smart, Strong and Sustainable."

Seeing the forest for the trees
Chuck Leavell on what the U.S. Green Building Council can learn from Georgia’s governor.