Sustainability Forest Certification

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Forest certification is a voluntary third-party process that identifies and recognizes well-managed forest land. It takes into consideration the ecological, economic, and social components of forests and surrounding communities.

There is nothing inherently wrong with certification—many family landowners in the United States are certified by at least one certification program, usually the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) or the American Tree Farm System (ATFS), and increasingly The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Many of these landowners use certification for market access or for proof-positive to stockholders that they are managing their lands in a responsible manner. However, the majority of private forest landowners do not certify at all due to cost, complexity, or simply a lack of clarity of why they would want their lands to be certified.

There is not a one-size-fits-all approach for verifying sustainability of forest resources. While forest certification is necessary to verify that material sourced from high-risk countries is sustainably managed, it seems that forest certification has less of need in verifying sustainability when sourcing from low-risk countries where good forestry is already occurring, such as the United States. Sustainability for U.S. wood cannot be defined or guaranteed by certification schemes alone. There are several contributing factors guaranteeing sustainability that are like pieces of a puzzle. When those pieces come together, we get a clear picture of what sustainability looks like for U.S. private forests.

Unintended Consequences of Forest Certification

The Robert Burns poem “To a Mouse” is a good reminder that our best laid plans often go awry. So is the history of environmental and agricultural policy in this country. Nonetheless, it’s surprising to consider how sustainability certification – a measure intended to promote environmentally sensitive forest stewardship – could actually lead to deforestation by accelerating the conversion of non-industrial private forests to non-forest developments.

The issue is one of market access. Sustainability certification is increasingly required to access forest product markets. However, for the small forest landowners, the costs of certification often outweigh the benefits. This catch-22 restricts market access and creates an incentive for some forest landowners to sell.

If certification has a net negative impact on the economic opportunities of forest landowners by restricting the marketplace, and the evidence suggests it will, then sustainability forest certification will produce the unintended consequence of hastening forest conversion.

Certification Costs and Benefits

Forest certification is a voluntary process in which a professional forester gives written assurance that the forest management practices of a particular manager or group comply with some specified sustainability standard. The purported aim of forest certification is to connect buyers and sellers of sustainably produced forest products.

In the United States, the predominant certification systems are the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), and the American Tree Farm System. The total acreage certified under SFI and American Tree Farm exceeds the total certified under FSC, yet wood products retailers more commonly require FSC certification. According to the FSC’s website, more and more businesses and government agencies are specifying FSC certified materials in their purchasing programs; and FSC certification is the only standard approved by the United States Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) accreditation program.

Under each system, sustainability certification entails direct and indirect costs to these forest owners. Direct costs are the cost of the auditor’s site visit, travel, report writing, and the certifying organization’s oversight. Direct costs for FSC certification could exceed $5,000 annually, an amount which prices out many small forestland owners.

Indirect costs are the costs incurred to meet the sustainable forestry standards. These can include the development or enhancement of a forest management plan, investment in infrastructure and machinery in order to be able to harvest more efficiently with lower impacts, establishing chain of custody procedures, and the opportunity costs of harvesting less timber. Indirect costs vary significantly from one forest owner to the next, and can easily exceed direct certification costs.

Purportedly offsetting certification costs are price premiums for certified products, increased access to environmentally sensitive markets, and improved marketing opportunities for certified producers. Unfortunately, these theorized price premiums have not materialized. The evidence suggests that buyers are unwilling to pay more for certified products, or only a very small premium for a short lived period.

As Mark Rickenbach explains in the Journal of Forestry, “[p]rice premiums were an early allure of forest certification; however, they have yet to emerge on a consistent or widespread basis. Some producers have been able to achieve limited premiums (5 to 10 percent) on some sales. However, at this point there is no assured payoff for the additional cost of becoming certified.”

One explanation for why consumers are not paying a price premium for certified sustainable forest products is that end consumers were not the driving force behind sustainable certification. Instead, environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network, and the World Wildlife Fund organized buyers groups committed to buying only certified products after a particular date. Hansen, et al., explain more precisely that the demand for certified products comes from “large corporations that wish to avoid the risk of damaging their brand image” and from “powerful ENGOs which have a history of influencing corporate behavior through protests and other elements of what they call ‘market mechanisms.’”

The promise of enhanced market access is similarly unfulfilled. The requisite economies of scale and chain of custody procedures make it costly, if not prohibitive, for small producers to individually distinguish their product. Rather, the procurement policies of local saw mills and paper mills are more likely to dictate whether certification is a mandatory requirement or an unavailable option.

Mandated sustainability certification, a concept that some forest policy experts see on the horizon, would create an incentive for small private forest landowners to sell their standing stocks quickly, to less discriminating buyers, or to consider selling their property altogether. This reality stands in stark contrast to the claims of price premiums and marketability made by certification advocates.

For many private forest owners, mandatory sustainability certification represents a restriction rather than an enhancement of market access and profitability. Certification adds significant cost to the forestry operations and, in some instances, unacceptable hardships and disincentives for private forest landowners. The unfortunate irony is that mandatory sustainability certification could, as a consequence, reduce the environmental and amenity values that flow from private forests.

Sustainable Without the Certification

Proponents of sustainability certification often fail to consider the existing sustainability and renewability of non-industrial private forest operations. The 360 million acres of non-industrial private forests produce more than sixty percent of the nation’s annual wood harvest; and, in several regions of the country, they are the primary source of pulp, lumber, plywood and other wood products. This harvesting has not reduced total forest coverage or the environmental benefits that flow from our nation’s forests. Indeed, timber growth in the U.S. has exceeded the harvests since 1952, resulting in 39 percent increase in domestic growing stock volume between 1953 and 2002.

In addition to wood products, non-industrial private forests are also engines of environmental goods and services. Of the public goods that flow from private forests, water purification and wildlife habitat are perhaps the most significant. These lands protect water quality by slowing runoff, stabilizing soils, preventing erosion and floods, and filtering pollutants. And their contribution to water purification is significant; an estimated 25 percent of all the water flow in the United States comes from or is filtered by non-industrial private forests.

In short, non-industrial private forests are the quintessential example of sustainability and renewability. But their balance of economic and environmental productivity is not guaranteed, it depends on stewardship practices of forest landowners. This stewardship, in large part, depends on the ability of forest landowners to access markets for wood products and to earn enough money to stay in forestry.

The purported aim of sustainability certification is to enhance environmental quality. Yet, as applied to non-industrial private forests, they could have the opposite effect. These policies should be reformed to recognize the existing high level of environmental stewardship on non-industrial private forests. Wood product processors and retailers should exempt non-industrial private forests from any sustainability certification requirement that imposes unnecessary costs on forest landowners.