Ocean City, N.J. It looks good, lasts for decades and can support the weight of a police car or fire engine, not to mention thousands of people. With those qualities, wood from tropical rain forests has become a favorite for building and repairing boardwalks.
But the trend is upsetting environmentalists, who favor synthetic materials or wood from trees that didn't grow in endangered areas.
And while Ocean City tried to do the right thing by seeking $1.2 million worth of Brazilian wood certified as having been harvested responsibly, the flap that has arisen highlights a fundamental question involving rain forests: Is there such a thing as "good" logging in places like the Amazon?
"Every second, 1.5 acres of rain forest is lost, and with it, thousands of plants and animals and habitat for the humans living there," said Georgina Shanley, a local environmentalist.
Ipe, a flowering tree that towers over others in the forest canopy and can grow to 100 feet, is Brazil's largest timber export, 50 percent of which is sold to customers in the United States. Ipe 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.
Officials in this south Jersey beach town say they need Brazilian ipe hardwood for boardwalks that will bear the weight of its large summer crowds, support emergency vehicles and withstand the onslaught of moisture and salt from the ocean.
The issue first arose 10 years ago when Ocean City scrapped an idea to use tropical rainforest wood on its 2 1/2-mile long boardwalk that had been built out of domestic yellow pine and ipe. The City Council passed a resolution in May 1997 declaring it would no longer purchase tropical rain forest hardwood for the boardwalk because it could not be sure it was harvested in an environmentally safe manner.
Now, however, the city is seeking wood from suppliers who have obtained certification from 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.
Scott Paul, a rain forest expert with Greenpeace, calls the certification "the Good Housekeeping seal of approval for forest management." Greenpeace was one of the founding members of the forestry council.
But Tim Keating, executive director of Rainforest Relief, a New York volunteer group that opposes the use of rain forest wood, said the forest council's standards do nothing to ensure that rain forests can be sustained for future generations.
"What I'm opposed to is the suggestion that the answer to bad logging is always better logging rather than no logging," Keating said. "Is wood from far away always the answer?"
Sustainability is a priority, said Katie Miller, a spokeswoman for the forestry council. "Part of it is to make sure these forests continue to grow," she said.
Paul, of Greenpeace, said there is logic on both sides.
"The local environmentalists are 100 percent right that they should exhaust every other available option. But if Ocean City has exhausted those options and says it has to have ipe for its load-bearing capacity or other criteria, then they should be commended for seeking FSC-certified wood and paying extra for it."