Woods of Wisdom

Richmond is home to a worldwide forest-certification program connected with the Rainforest Alliance

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Richard Donovan, longtime executive director and now chief of forestry for SmartWood in Richmond, was one of the originators of the idea to certify responsible forest practices.

In the winter 2000-2003 issue of "Forest Matters," the newsletterof an organization called SmartWood, a small Shelburne woodworking company, Beeken/Parsons, is listed, among the most recent operations to receive renewal of their SmartWood certifications.

SmartWood is a program of the Rainforest Alliance with headquarters in Richmond. It was the first, and now the most extensive, program to certify responsible forestry practices. Since its inception in 1989, it has certified more than 800 operations worldwide. Certified companies include tiny firms like Beeken/Parsons and giants like Home Depot and Ikea.

Richard Donovan, the organization's longtime executive director and now its chief of forestry, is the reason SmartWood's headquarters reside in Vermont. A Vermont resident since he left graduate school, Donovan was hired in 1992, when the program was a little over two years old and based in New York City, home of its parent organization.

SmartWood was launched as a rainforest project, but over the years it has evolved to work in all forest types tropical, temperate and boreal. When Donovan was hired, the program had a total of only 10 certifications.

"They wanted me to move to New York City. I said, 'No Way! That's not in my blood; you'll have to find someone else.'" Rather than risk losing Donovan's rich background and experience, the Rainforest Alliance decided that, since Donovan was here, SmartWood could be here, too.

That certainty about what he wants appears to be an inborn trait; and what Donovan does have in his blood is a love of the woods. He calls it his legacy.

Although he was born in New Jersey, he was raised from age 1 in Minnesota, his parents' home state. "My mom was from Virginia, Minn.; my dad was from Hibbing. Virginia is one of the key towns in the Mesabi Range, where the old family sawmill was and where the original Weyerhaeuser mills were," he says.

His mother's father and three generations back were loggers and sawmill owners in northern Minnesota. His father's father, a high school principal, was a woodsman from whom Donovan learned the skills for being out in the woods. "That's the legacy," he says, adding that the family still owns land in Minnesota.

Donovan's father was an oil marketing executive, and the family moved several times during his formative years, although always in the northern United States. In 1967, when Donovan was 15, his father went into real estate and moved the family to Naples, Fla.

"It was a big change, from way up there to way down there," he says. He made the best of it, however, until he left for Wabash College in Indiana to study pre-law. After two years, he headed for Mexico to study and eventually finished his undergraduate degree work in Latin American history and Romance languages at the University of South Florida. "I continued my family's vagabond lifestyle," he quips.

Following graduation, Donovan entered the Peace Corps, volunteering in Paraguay from 1975 to '77. In '77, he returned to Minnesota, where he spent a year "basically logging and being in the woods. I'm very confident with a chain saw," he continues, adding that logging and only a little family support helped him get through college pretty much loan-free.

Donovan decided to enter graduate school. "I visited three schools: Yale, Michigan and Antioch in Keene, N.H. I didn't like either Ann Arbor or New Haven, and for me, style of life has always been important." He chose Antioch, where he earned a master of science in natural resources management.

It was during this time that he met his future wife, Karen Alfonsi, a Vermonter doing her undergraduate work at Keene State. "We fell in love on a dance floor in Brattleboro," says Donovan with a smile. Karen's maternal grandfather was Barden Nelson, a farmer from West Pawlet who served in the Vermont Legislature at one time.

SmartWood employs 22 people in Vermont, a total of about 40 throughout the world. Michael Thiemann, training manager (left); Anne Goudreau, office manager; and John Landis, technical and IT support specialist, work in the Richmond office.

Donovan now had real motivation to hang around, so when his final internship at the end of graduate school resulted in a job offer, he accepted. The job was with a new consulting firm in Burlington called Associates in Rural Development. "I was one of the first staff people hired for ARD in 1981. That's when I came to Vermont to stay," he says.

ARD's founders, George Burrill and James Nolfi, influenced him greatly in positive ways, says Donovan, who would stay at ARD until 1987. "When they established that office with the idea that it would be an international consulting firm in Burlington, Vermont, a lot of people thought they were crazy," he says. "What I learned from them was: Yes, you can do it if you decide to do it."

By 1987, the woods were calling him again, and Donovan accepted a position with the World Wildlife Fund to run a field project in Costa Rica, where he spent three and a half years in the rain forest on the Osa Peninsula. By the time he returned, he had a staff of 15 and was "doing everything from reforestation to natural forest management, ecotourism and agriculture, believe it or not."

Back in the states, he stayed with the WWF another couple of years as a senior fellow. During that time, he became involved with a group of people trying to work out a way to protect the rain forests while helping people who lived in them to make a living. "They looked at organic food certification and said, 'Why don't we do something like that give certificates to people who do a really good job of forest management?'"

From these talks came the Forest Stewardship Council Certification System, an independent, nonprofit, non-governmental organization with diverse representation that includes environmental institutions, timber and trade organizations, forestry professionals, indigenous people's organizations, community forestry groups and forest product certifications organizations (such as SmartWood) from 25 countries.

"The idea caught on," says Donovan. The Rainforest Alliance developed certification standards that balanced social, environmental and economic values. "The idea was to reward people who do it right, who think about the long-term management of the forest and long-term values of the communities."

"The first guy to run SmartWood was an environmental toxicologist. So here you've got a program run by activists, none of whom had much experience in the forest, but it was a great idea. The second great idea was to call it SmartWood." The third great idea, he says, was the decision to not only certify the forest, but to create a certification for any business that used the wood that came out of a certified forest.

Thus was invented "chain-of-custody," which followed (and certified) wood from the forest owner to the logger to the trucker to the sawmill to the furniture factory, to the distribution center to the retailer.

The Rainforest Alliance soon realized that it needed someone with forest experience to take the helm. The natural candidate was Donovan, who speaks "Spanish, Portuguese and an Indian language," holds a master's degree in natural resources management, and possesses personal and generational experience in the woods.

SmartWood's first Vermont quarters were in Donovan's home in Richmond. When he moved to Jericho, SmartWood moved, too. "Five years ago, we decided we needed a separate office," he says, "and established it in the Goodwin-Baker Building in Richmond," a building on the National Historic Register.

Donovan had very little trouble finding people living in Vermont who were eager to work for the organization. Today SmartWood boasts about 40 employees sprinkled through the world in a series of regional offices: Djakarta, Indonesia; Guatemala City; Santa Cruz, Bolivia; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Tallinn, Estonia; Madrid, Spain; Dallas, Texas; Northfield, Minn.; Portland, Ore.; and Victoria, British Columbia. Twenty-two of them work in Vermont.

Chain-of-custody bears a lot of the credit for SmartWood's phenomenal growth. The range of products crafted from certified wood includes furniture, musical instruments, framing lumber, plywood, veneer, molding, millwork, flooring, musical instruments, and picture and window frames.

"Today," says Donovan, with chain-of-custody, "for every forest you certify, you might certify five, 10 or 20 other companies that buy/sell/trade/process/distribute that wood. What you've got today is a system of certification that takes, in a sense, wood from cradle to grave.

"That's literally to the grave," he continues, "because what also is happening is SmartWood developed something called 'recycled and rediscovered wood certification' for reclaimed wood out of landfills. That's a newer business. We only have 30 to 40 certificates in it."

Introducing the idea of certification hasn't been a bed of roses. When it was proposed, says Donovan, the response from the industry was, "Forget about it; we're not going to let outside auditors in to look at our operation." In the intervening years, other certification programs have arisen, including several industry-sponsored self-certification programs, and industry has begun to realize the market benefits of certification.

"Europe was much more enthusiastic than U.S. companies," says Donovan. "Even today, the European markets are far more advanced than here in the United States in terms of this stuff," he says. "For example, I just saw information that said over 60 to 70 percent of the trade in timber in the United Kingdom now is certified wood. We're not anything like that here in the U.S. We're down below 5 percent some say 1 percent; some say 3 percent. At this point, we're a minor blip on the screen."

Abraham Guillen, market development manager, sits on a chair made of certified wood as he plays a guitar also certified.

Donovan is encouraged by Home Depot's commitment and the fact that certified wood is beginning to show up in the company's stores. "Ikea has made a commitment that they want to see all wood that goes into their stores in the future to be certified," he says. "You're beginning to see it in some of the do-it-yourself sector people like Lowes and 84 Lumber.

"One place where it's started to be a little more than a blip on the screen is among building contractors and in the architectural community. Centex, the largest home-building company in the United States, has stated that they want to start using more and more certified wood; and Andersen Windows is starting to use certified in their window products. The other thing is now the American Institute of Architects has a system called LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) where they give bonus points to architects for using certified products."

As an example, Donovan mentions the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund in Montpelier, which has managed to put certified products into building projects like the ones at Middlebury College and Vermont Law School.

Beeken/Parsons has worked with Donovan from the beginning. "I think we were one of the first Vermont chain-of-custody certifications, says Jeff Parsons. "Richard was involved in all of the decision-making and establishing protocol for all of the certification." He says Donovan has taken the SmartWood crew to Beeken/Parsons' shop on Shelburne Farms on a couple of occasions so they can become familiar with how a certified firm works.

About a year ago, Donovan tapped into that inner certainty of his and made another momentous decision. He realized two things, he says: "First, it was my desire to spend more time doing technical and field work and less time managing a staff. Second, the business was growing, and I felt we needed to get someone who really was a professional in management."

A new executive director, Bob Beer, was hired, who has 30 years of experience in the forest products sector, with "a particularly strong amount of experience on the paper side of things," according to Donovan, and "a set of skills that complemented what my background was." A New Yorker, Beer continues to live there, dividing his time about 50/50 between New York and the Vermont headquarters.

Donovan opted to go on the road as chief of forestry, inspecting and auditing forests. When he conducts an audit for certification, he considers a number of things, such as whether the company is a good, long-term neighbor; how it protects rivers and streams (riparian zones); how nesting trees for raptors and owls are protected; and how the trees are harvested. "When somebody is managing a national forest, do they try and make it so they don't scar the other trees?" he asks, adding, "SmartWood is against 'high-graders, companies that take the best and leave the rest.

The outdoors is Donovan's playground as well as his workplace. He and Karen have two children, Andrew, age 19, a soccer player and sophomore at St. Michael's College; and Emily, a senior at Mount Mansfield Union High School. The entire family skis "a bunch," Donovan says. He and Karen bike and jog, and each summer, the family travels to northern Minnesota to spend five or six weeks on a 27-acre island in a red pine cabin Donovan built in 1991. "Back here, we're pretty much outside doing one thing or another. I'm just into exercises."

As a result of his move to chief of forestry, Donovan now travels between 30 percent and 40 percent of his time to all parts of the globe. The best part, he says, is that for at least half of his travel time, he's again out in the woods, "and that's what keeps me going."

Originally published in May 2003 Business People-Vermont