February 28, 2000 12:00 PM

Daniel Katz had picked out a perfect site for his June 1998 wedding to Maggie Lear: a secluded clearing in a Vermont forest. And the ardent environmentalist wasn’t about to let Mother Nature rain on his parade. When it began drizzling, Katz, 38, nixed suggestions that they dash to the reception tent. Instead he led his bride and 150 dripping guests on a 10-minute hike to the nuptial meadow. “Dan wanted it to be outside,” says best man Richard Tait. “His soul is just an outside soul.”

And why shouldn’t he want to share the moment with a few trees? As executive director of the nonprofit Rainforest Alliance, Katz helped pioneer an innovative tactic in the fight to preserve forests. Since 1990 his group’s SmartWood program has been awarding seals of approval to environmentally responsible loggers. The idea: SmartWood labels let shoppers for wood products know they aren’t contributing to clear-cutting or other damaging practices. To date the group has certified nearly 100 forestry operations worldwide. Retailers such as Home Depot, which recently revised its purchasing policy to give preference to certified lumber, are onboard—along with plenty of tree-hugging celebs.

“The more people demand certified lumber, the more a market for it will develop,” says folkie James Taylor, who used SmartWood to build a home, as did Olivia Newton-John. Jay Leno’s Tonight Show desk is a SmartWood specimen, and Kevin Bacon, Jackson Browne and Rosanne Cash have strummed SmartWood guitars at the New York City-based Rainforest Alliance’s fund-raisers. “Dan is a committed guy,” says Cash. “He’s inspiring.”

Just not to everyone—yet. Most major logging companies have resisted signing on, and only about 0.5 percent of the world’s lumber products are made from certified wood. But the forestry industry has begun its own certification program (criticized by some environmentalists as too lenient), and other groups have followed the lead of Katz’s group. Says Hank Cauley, executive director of the nonprofit Forest Stewardship Council: “SmartWood was visionary in developing a certification program that is now a movement worldwide.”

Katz didn’t always pine to be an activist. Reared in Cincinnati, the son of a civil engineer and a home-maker studied Chinese at Ohio State University and was working at a Wall Street law firm in 1986 when he attended a seminar about the destruction of the rain forest. Galvanized, he turned to the stranger next to him, he says, and asked, “Are you ready to do something?”

Katz was. Within months he had quit his job, and with $500 in blackjack winnings to tide him over, he was able to focus on his new cause. “We were an incredibly scrubby group,” he says. His chutzpah helped change that. At lunch with an heiress in 1987, he recalls, he responded to her offer to donate $10,000 to the fledgling Rainforest Alliance by saying, “Twenty thousand would be better.” He got it.

The Alliance employs 40 staffers and wields a budget of $4.5 million, most of it from grants, donations and SmartWood fees. To win certification, foresters (who pay evaluators a fee based on the size of their property) must show that they don’t damage the local environment or the forest’s ability to regenerate. “Our bottom line is conservation,” says Katz.

When he’s not overseeing Smart-Wood efforts in Vermont or Costa Rica, Katz shares a Manhattan apartment with wife Maggie Lear, 40, an executive with her family’s charitable foundation (and the daughter of TV producer Norman Lear), and their 5-month-old son Griffin. “It’s hard to come to work sometimes, because I just want to play with him,” says Katz. But fatherhood, he adds, has made him “even more intense” about his mission: “Our job is to hold the fort for future generations.”

Samantha Miller

Lisa Kay Greissinger in New York City

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