With forests at risk, certification standards can help

In sustainably managed forests, new trees are planted each time older trees are cut down for timber.
ShutterstockAlberto Masnovo
In sustainably managed forests, new trees are planted each time older trees are cut down for timber.

Forests are critical to the health of our environment and economy. Consider that 53 percent of all U.S. drinking water originates from forestland. At the same time, our forests create 2.4 million jobs and these same forests offset CO2 emissions from the United States by 12 percent.

Our forests matter, yet face serious challenges associated with development, intergenerational land transfer and irresponsible forestry practices at a time when global demand for wood and for land are ever-increasing. (Tune in to the GreenBizz Webcast Feb. 10 about "How companies and procurement standards can save forests.") When forests are sold, they often are broken in smaller pieces to be chopped up and eventually converted into housing and suburban sprawl. We have a small window of opportunity this decade to reverse trends from which forests may not recover.

Twenty years ago, forestry standards were born. These standards let consumers know that the wood products they buy come from responsibly managed forests that protect wildlife, biodiversity and water quality. Today, demand for certified timber products outstrips supply, according to a 2012 report (PDF) co-authored by the United Nations Environment Programme. Yet while certified standards cover about 250 million acres in the United States and Canada, only 10 percent of forests across the globe are certified.  

Now, the demand for certified forest products is creating key trade opportunities in the greening of wood manufacturing. Key areas with increasing demand for certified timber products include the construction sector as well as consumer markets for environmentally sustainable products for homes, office and other buildings. Demand is also growing from the wood products processing industry and the do-it-yourself market.

A triple threat to forest sustainability

Certification is having an undeniably positive impact on forest health, but there is no room for complacency. As we look ahead into 2015, three dynamics pose a threat to the sustainability of our forests: intergenerational land transfer; investment-oriented ownership; and global growth.

Intergenerational transfer of land is changing forest ownership in unpredictable ways. The next few years will see the largest intergenerational transfer of U.S. forestland in our nation's history. As many as 26 million acres of our forests will be sold over the next 15 years, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Establishing and maintaining certification standards on these lands is the only realistic way to make sure sustainability remains a prime consideration for new landowners.

A second factor is the shift to investment-oriented ownership, which has serious implications for forest conservation. In the last 10 years alone, roughly 75 million acres of some of our most productive forestland have traded hands. This dramatically has changed the way private forests are held, and many of these new investors are not thinking about long-term forest management.

Forest certification embeds long-term, sustainable approaches to managing working forests. The longleaf pine in the Southern United States is a prime example of how certification as part of a healthy active market actually can help protect a tree species. Certifying longleaf forests is helping to encourage procurement policies to list the species. This, in turn, is helping investors see the value of maintaining longleaf forests instead of converting them for other types of land use.

Increased global demand is the third potential threat. Dire headlines about stock markets and nations' economic performance over the last few years have obscured the fact that the world economy is still growing and demand for forest products is growing along with it. We need to ensure that forests are managed sustainably in the face of this growing demand.

We are all in this together

The response to these threats will have to come from all of us because the decisions, both large and small, that consumers, corporations and landowners make every day directly affect the future of our forests. So when a Fortune 500 company sources forest products, or a landowner makes a forest management plan, or a consumer buys copy paper, they can all make the right choice for our forests by supporting certification standards.

The best standards work to advance research, conservation partnerships and community-building. Leading standards are working to develop the next generation of sustainable forestry practices today. Standards are also helping to train logging and resource professionals in sustainable forestry practices.

For example, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative's 2015-2019 Forest Management Standard promotes sustainable forestry practices based on 13 principles, 15 objectives, 37 performance measures and 101 indicators. These requirements include measures to protect water quality, biodiversity, wildlife habitat, species at risk and forests with exceptional conservation value.

The SFI 2015-2019 Fiber Sourcing Standard promotes responsible forestry practices based on 14 principles, 13 objectives, 21 performance measures and 55 indicators that address the 90 percent of the world’s forests that are not certified. These fiber sourcing requirements include measures to broaden the practice of biodiversity, use forestry best management practices to protect water quality, provide outreach to landowners and use the services of forest management and harvesting professionals. Because it directs how SFI program participants procure fiber from non-certified land, it means the standard is encouraging the spread of responsible forestry practices.

The SFI 2015-2019 Chain of Custody Standard tracks the percentage of fiber from certified forests, certified sourcing and recycled content through production and manufacturing to the end product. Organizations can use physical separation, average percentage or volume credit methods to track and communicate their chain of custody claims. The SFI Chain of Custody standard is applied globally.

Different standards, shared goals

Forest certification programs such as the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification and the Forest Stewardship Council also work to ensure the future of our forests.  While I believe Sustainable Forestry Initiative offers the most effective approach to certification (and in the interest of full disclosure, I currently chair Sustainable Forestry Initiative's Board of Directors, my second time to serve in that post), the challenges facing our forests will be best served when we broaden participation in certification. Competition among certification standards is good for our forests because it creates a race to the top, and having multiple certification systems in the marketplace will encourage ever more acreage to be certified. SFI has certified more than 250 million acres, but only 10 percent of forests are certified today. All of our collective energies should be aimed at increasing the amount of certified land around the world.

Forests play an essential role in our nation’s natural infrastructure. They are intricate ecosystems that benefit our health, environment and economy in ways that extend far beyond each stand of trees. But these benefits and the future of our forests depend on the decisions we make today. Forest certification standards equip everyone to make the best decisions possible.

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