About this time last year, President Obama introduced America’s Great Outdoors, a conservation initiative aimed at restoring the country’s forests, protecting watersheds and natural recreation areas, and protecting conservation-program jobs. In February 2011, in a follow-up to the president’s announcement, the top people at the Interior and Agriculture departments, and at the Environmental Protection Agency and the Council on Environmental Quality, all signed off on a report, “America’s Great Outdoors: A Promise to Future Generations,” that identifies strategies that can be used to strengthen the program.One such strategy surfaced late last month as the U.S. Department of Agriculture helped celebrate the launch of the International Year of the Forests, a United Nations-sponsored awareness campaign for 2011 that promotes responsible use and management of the world’s forests. At a Year of the Forests event held on March 30, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack presented a three-part plan to upgrade the green building practices of the USDA, including its U.S. Forest Services branch.Touting the virtues of responsibly harvested woodThe first part of the plan makes it a priority for the Forest Service to “preferentially select wood in new building construction while maintaining its commitment to certified green building standards.” The USDA also committed to using wood and other agricultural products as part of its effort to comply with an executive order issued by the president – titled Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance – that required federal agencies to submit a 2020 greenhouse gas pollution reduction target, increase their energy efficiency in all operations, conserve water, reduce waste, support sustainable communities, “and leverage federal purchasing power to promote environmentally-responsible products and technologies.”Second on Vilsack’s list was a request that the Forest Service examine how green-building materials research can be improved. Third was a commitment to “the innovative use of wood as a green building material” for new structures of 10,000 sq. ft. or more using green building standards such as LEED, Green Globes, or the National Green Building Standard. A news release about the USDA’s initiative cited a recent Forest Service lifecycle analysis that found harvesting, transporting, manufacturing, and using wood in lumber and panel products in building “yields fewer air emissions – including greenhouse gases – than resource extraction, manufacturing, and use of other common building materials.”Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell responded to the USDA declaration by directing all agency units to use locally milled timber in all of its new buildings and facilities.