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New Jersey: Ocean City may scrap rainforest wood boardwalk deal

Source:  Copyright 2008, Associated Press
Date:  January 14, 2008
Byline:  Wayne Parry
Original URL: Status DEAD

Since this southern New Jersey beach town broke a decade-old promise last year not to use wood from tropical rainforests on its boardwalk, just about everything that could go wrong with the plan did go wrong.

Environmentalists picketed and the mayor's office was flooded with 50,000 protest e-mails from around the globe.

The wood, which was supposed to be certified as having been harvested responsibly from trusted sources in the Amazon, cost anywhere between 30 and 70 percent more than wood without the certification.

And the Baltimore lumber company that was supposed to have the wood here by the end of the year still hasn't. It blamed, among other things, unfavorable currency exchange rates, and low water levels in Amazon jungles that made it hard to float logs to mills.

Now, after suffering serious damage to its reputation as an environmentally friendly community, the city that calls itself "America's Greatest Family Resort" may be ready to scrap the $1.1 million deal -- even if it means a costly legal battle.

A majority of the City Council is considering voting Thursday night to refuse to pay for the wood, claiming the Louis Grasmick Lumber Co. has defaulted on its contract with Ocean City.

"We've taken this entire community down a path of divisiveness, for reasons I still don't understand," said Councilman Jody Alessandrine. "It has put our city on the map and on the Internet and in the newspapers for all the wrong reasons. Some people are just unwilling to admit their mistakes."

That was a reference to Mayor Sal Perillo, who since last January has championed the use of Brazilian ipe wood for a block-long section of the boardwalk. He likes the durability of the wood, and says the environmental certification it carries proves the city is doing the right thing. He also said breaking a contract could expose the city to damages, and hurt its reputation among other companies that do business with it.

Perillo did not immediately return a call seeking comment Monday.

Ten years ago, Ocean City voted never to use tropical rainforest wood again for its 2½ mile-long boardwalk that is a mixture of ipe and domestic yellow pine, citing the damage that logging operations are doing to the Amazon. But last January, it decided that using wood certified as having been harvested responsibly would be OK.

Ipe is a flowering tree that towers over others in the forest canopy and can grow to 100 feet. Because it lasts longer than pine, it has been used in boardwalk projects from coast to coast, including Atlantic City, New York, Baltimore, Chicago, Miami Beach and Long Beach and Santa Monica, Calif.

Ocean City bought wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, a group of industry and environmental groups who seek to improve forestry management practices. Certification means that loggers operate in ways designed to damage the ecosystem as little as possible, including not over-harvesting or wasting trees.

But environmental groups are split over whether that represents true progress or just a fig leaf covering for practices that still denude the rain forest.

Matt Miller, a sales representative for Grasmick, said the company has asked Ocean City for more time to deliver the wood. He said an additional shipment left for Ocean City on Monday, and would not comment on what the company would do if Ocean City refuses to pay for the wood.

So far, only about 3 percent of the wood has reached Ocean City. And only part of that bears stickers claiming that it meets responsible forestry guidelines, said Georgina Shanley, one of many local activists trying to get the city to kill the plan.

"We look ridiculous in the eyes of the world," she said. "We have all these wonderful initiatives -- green cars and solar buildings, but then we have this absolutely ramming through of something that is incredibly damaging to the environment."

The delay in delivering the wood has left a gaping hole in a block-long stretch of the boardwalk, which was ripped up in preparation for the new boards. And several councilman are worried that if work doesn't start immediately, the boardwalk won't be ready by Easter -- the traditional start of the spring season for boardwalk merchants.

"We all agree that the boardwalk has to be ready by Easter, even if it means we have to use a different kind of wood," said Councilman Greg Johnson. "If a correction needs to be made, we will make it."

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