Certification: Building Standards for Sustainable Forests

Sustainable_Forest_Black_Rock_Forest_Daniel_Case2Pretty much anyone who works in sustainable forestry these days will tell you that certification is the cornerstone of a responsible eco-conscious forestry program.  Whether you are a forester whose objective is to show that you are harvesting wood products responsibly, or you are a private family tree farm owner who is committed to contributing to sustainable forest management, certification counts.

To find out more about why this process is important, we caught up with Mike Ferrucci, program manager and auditor for NSF International. NSF provides third-party certification and audits for several sustainable forest management organizations, including Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) and American Tree Farm System (ATFS). They also provide contract audits for the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which arranges its third-party certification through SCS Global.

Ferrucci’s knowledge of forestry practices is expansive. His 35 years in the field has included practical experience both as a private forestry consultant and as a certification program manager and auditor. He has surveyed everything from state-managed public forests to small private family tree farms, and his experience in the field has put him in touch with a wide spectrum of forestry standards.

Sustainable forestry program certifications

Ferrucci says there are three reasons why third-party certification programs are important for responsible forest management.

“The first is that consumers are concerned about where their forest products come from. And certification helps consumers … to be sure that the forest products they are consuming are sustainably produced (and) that the forests are being taken care of,” says Ferrucci.

The second reason is the public’s increasing interest in ensuring a healthy local ecology. Consumers these days want to know that their backyard – the forest they see as part of their own habitat – is healthy and being cared for sustainably.

“And so being able to tell a logger or somebody who is hiking through a forest that that particular forest that they are working in or hiking through or enjoying is certified is, I think, one of the more valuable parts of certification.”

The third reason is the one that defines what certification really is, says Ferrucci, when you put aside the personal reasons that customers rely on sustainable forest management:

“Forest certification audits are an independent … third-party review of the management of a particular forest and how it might be able to be done better. Part of forest certification is improving the management.”

Certification has secondary benefits

That third-party impartial review process, combined with the genuine interest to meet consumer’s expectations has its benefits, says SFI President and CEO Kathy Abusow. It not only sets a framework for improved management of forest systems, it translates to a healthier ecosystem in general.

Forests are what provide us with clean air, with clean water, with wildlife habitat, with a renewable resource that provides forest products, etc. It is our best defense against climate change and the absorption of carbon, and it is just something we need to keep in order for us to have a healthy world to live in. And that’s the end goal of sustainable forest management and that’s what all forest certification standards are trying to do.”

Abusow likens the certification-audit process to financial reviews that companies undergo each year. Consumers use certification audits as a benchmark to ensure the forest is being managed soundly.

“We are one of the very few sectors that actually has these independent programs and independent auditors to look at how …we maintain our resource and how … we extract our resource and can continue to conserve all of the values associated with the forest resource.

“So we’re ahead of the curve on that compared to many other sectors, and I think forestry should be recognized for that,” says Abusow.

sustainable_forest_logs_M-arunprasadCommon standards, individualized programs

Most certification programs recognize common guidelines that are set by International Organization for Standardization called ISO 17021. Those standards, says Ferrucci, are “essentially the rules around conducting management systems audits.” ISO 17021 sets a level playing field so that principles such as impartiality, confidentiality and complaint resolution procedures are all incorporated into the review process.

Still, each sustainable forest management system offers its own types of certification and its own benchmarks, or standards, for earning that certification.

Both SFI and FSC, for example, offer chain of custody certification, which tracks the fiber from the certified forest through the supply chain, making sure that the product is kept separated from non-certified fiber all the way to the point of purchase or use.

And at the same time, both have unique certification programs that allow organizations to incorporate fiber that didn’t come from a certified forest, but conforms to certain ethical and legal standards.

FSC’s Communications Director, Brad Kahn, says that the organization’s Controlled Wood certification program provides a way for foresters to incorporate non-certified fiber that is free of the following banned sources:

  • Illegally obtained fiber
  • Fiber harvested in violation of traditional or civil rights
  • Material that comes from high conservation areas
  • Fiber that is from a converted source, i.e., a forest that was converted to a plantation
  • Fiber that contains genetically modified organisms (GMO)

Kahn acknowledges that Controlled Wood certification “is a much lower bar than FSC’s forest management standards, but it is designed to make sure that really bad stuff isn’t getting into an FSC certified product. Basically,” he explains, “it is a recognition of the way that the marketplace works.

“Think about a guitar, for example. There might be 10 different types of wood in the guitar and half of them might be FSC certified, but some of them are just not available as FSC certified.” Programs like Controlled Wood facilitates the use of certified fiber, while ensuring that non-certified fiber is harvested in accordance with specific standards.

SFI’s Fiber Sourcing certification addresses the same opportunities, which, the organization points out on its website,  provides a mechanism for producers to use good, ethically harvested fiber that has not come from certified forests.

ATFS, which is a program of the American Forest Foundation also tailors certifications that offer their clients unique ways to ensure sustainable practices. ATFS’s Certification Manager, Sarah Crow, says that ATFS originally began as a recognition program in 1941, and later transitioned into a third-party certification program for small forest owners who often face hurdles and barriers such as cost and technical expertise.

“Because of the scale of family forest lands, it is hard for individuals to really engage in the marketplace,” says Crow, “and so our certification program is designed specifically for family forest lands. And like other standards that are really designed for industrial operations, our standards encompass that range of global significance sustainability indicators, but they have been calibrated specifically to size, scale and intensity of family forest lands.”

One such certification program is the State Tree Farm Certification Program, which is administered at the state level by volunteers. ATFS has programs in 44 states, and tree farms are certified under regional certificates. The advantage to the program is the local expertise in the ecological and logistical challenges that a tree farmer would face in that area.

Sustainable forestry management: Takeaway lessons

Sustainable forestry certification programs have changed and matured over the years to meet a changing marketplace and changing values. Each of the organizations mentioned here said there were takeaway lessons they had gained over the years.

For Ferrucci, it is to take time and give consideration of how much work was involved in the process he was evaluating.

“I have learned as an auditor to really give people time to answer questions, (to) tell their story and (to) give situations time to tell their story as well … to observe all the parts of the system and how they interact before coming to any conclusions,” says Ferrucci.

Kahn’s insight is similar.

(What) I have heard from forest managers is that if you enter the (auditing) process with an open mind, and say, OK, let’s look at this as a way for an impartial third party to evaluate our business and see what we can learn from it, then I think you’ll have a good experience. But it isn’t always easy for folks who have been managing their forests for a long time, and managing them successfully in their own minds … So it is a learning process.”

Abusow says she has come to appreciate the value of research, and the input that comes from landowner research.

“We have a research requirement in our standard. It is one of the unique features of SFI and organizations that are implementing our standards are required to demonstrate to that third-party auditor the research that is being undertaken in forest health and forest conservation issues,” says Abusow, who notes that it is a great way for SFI to learn from its applicants about what is really important in sustainable forest management programs and the certification they offer.

For Crow, it is the value of the program.

The standards really matter,” she says. How they are designed, and the priorities they are written to address really matter as well.

“What is great about these standards is that because they are specific to the size, scale and intensity of these lands, they really provide a solid platform from which a landowner can manage and really start with their objectives and then go through all of their considerations to embody good forest management and stewardship on the ground.”

And the value of that third-party audited status can’t be overestimated, Crow says. “It gives back to the markets and really reinforces the value of conservation.”

Panoramic of Black Stone Forest, NY courtesy of Daniel Case

Image of stacked logs courtesy of M.arunprasad

Jan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

Leave a Reply