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For the last five years, environmentalists have been pressuring the city to adopt a policy requiring that tropical wood be certified by an independent third party accredited by the nonprofit Forest Stewardship Council, an impartial organization with representatives ranging from the timber industry to conservation groups. When landowners allow accredited, independent certifiers to audit their forests, this guarantees for buyers that the forest environment is managed responsibly for the long term, with fair practices for both laborers and indigenous peoples.
Over the next few weeks, the Parks Department will work with architects to determine the kind and quality of wood that should be used for new park benches. Environmental activists are most vocal during this "specifications" step, one in a yearlong bureaucratic process for creating new capital projects.
The city recently responded to pressure from activists by using certified wood for 40 percent of the benches in the newly renovated City Hall Park. The Parks Department says that it plans to replace the remaining uncertified benches with certified ones.
Tim Keating, executive director of Rainforest Relief in Brooklyn, applauded the move, but notes it is but a small step toward environmental responsibility.
"It's just totally a symbolic thing," he says. "We're thrilled that they used certified wood, but we're calling on the Parks Department to phase out in the future all uncertified wood."
The Parks Department does not have such a plan yet. "We're trying to use as much certified wood as possible," says spokesperson Bob Lawson. "But it has a lot to do with the availability of the wood."
Activists at least have the ear of Council member A. Gifford Miller, who represents the Upper East Side. His bill, which has 22 cosponsors, would require the city to use only certified wood for almost all capital projects. However, the bill has been on hold since August 1998, Miller explains, while "legal issues" are worked out. He also says that he has had trouble getting the administration to sign on to the bill despite its popularity in the City Council.
"The reality is that if the City Council had the guts, they could go ahead and pass the bill," says Keating, who assisted with drafting the bill. "Then it would be up to New York State to sue and appeal the law. It would be hard to believe that the state government would choose to do this."
Other national environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Rainforest Alliance, point to Long Beach, California, to show that such a bill is legally and fiscally possible. That city recently adopted a certification policy and went even one step further by using recycled plastic lumber.
New York City is dragging its feet, environmentalists grumble. Last August, The New York Times reported that the Parks Department was "moving toward replacing tropical woods with recycled plastic." The article did not mention the move would be only in a couple of parks in the outer boroughs.
According to Lawson, the Parks Department prefers the classic look of the "World's Fair"style benches, wooden ones with rounded wrought iron sides. That design does not have the internal structure to support the more flexible plastic lumber. The city would need to design a new bench to use the environmentally friendly alternative.
Instead, it continues to use the tropical ipê (pronounced ee-pay) woods, which are not mentioned in a 1991 New York State law that outlaws the use of a narrow crop of tree species. However, with the high quality and long lengths mandated in the specifications process, landowners must log one acre for every nine board feet of wood, making harvesting especially destructive.
"It's a bitter irony that to enjoy our open spaces we have to destroy old-growth forests," says Council member Miller.