According to World Wildlife Fund (WWF), up to 58,000 square miles of forest is lost annually – the equivalent of 48 football fields a minute. The result of this deforestation is a threat to the estimated 1.6 billion people who rely on forests for their way of life, as well as to some of the most endangered plants and animals on the planet.
The factors behind deforestation are complicated, and the tactics necessary to halt it vary by location to location. But for over 25 years, one of WWF’s success stories has been the Global Forest and Trade Network (GFTN), which the NGO says connects over 200 companies, communities and government agencies in over 30 countries. This collaboration has a long history of results, which are necessary as some estimates suggest the amount of wood culled from forests annually may need to triple by mid-century.
By bringing various stakeholders together, WWF insists that GFTN has ensured millions of acres of forests have become certified as sustainably managed, while fostering a market for pulp and paper that provide economic benefits for the companies and people that rely on them. TriplePundit recently spoke to Samantha St. Pierre, Manager of Markets Transformation for Forestry of Rainforest Alliance (RA), about her perspectives on GFTN’s impact in North America. RA is one non-profit that has had a long relationship with GFTN and has staff that advise the group on a regular basis.
GFTN North America (GFTN-NA) works with large Canadian and U.S. purchasers of paper and wood products. This networks' goals include the phasing out of illegal and unwanted sources of wood while, while increasing sources of wood derived from sustainably managed forests. WWF says it takes a “step-wise approach” that succeeds in transitioning companies towards a more responsible supply chain. This wood and paper certification progress starts with known sources, and then over time licensed, controlled wood and finally, credibly certified raw materials.
During the process, companies participating in the GFTN are connected to other organizations so that they can share best practices, as well as provide the technical assistance and expertise necessary as companies and suppliers increase the proportion of certified wood and fiber across their supply chains. “I think GFTN is a great place where various companies across different industries can come together and work on solutions to solve these problems,” said St. Pierre, “and the result is a great feeling of collaboration.”
Such work is crucial in the U.S. South, which is often called the “wood basket” of the country. While many consumers perceive forests as being typical of the Rocky Mountain region or Pacific Northwest, most timber land west of the Mississippi is national parks and reserved forest. According to the U.S. Forest Service, the South hosts about 40 percent of the nation’s 521 million acres of forests - and that region, in turn, provides most the bulk of pulp and paper raw material sourced in the U.S. is found.
Yet the South is also the fastest-growing region in the U.S., with regions such as metropolitan Atlanta and North Carolina’s Research Triangle adding more residents at a rapid pace. “With the pending threat of urbanization and expansion of our cities, it is very important to look at the resilience of the forests in this region,” explained St. Pierre.
Further complicating the future of the South's forests, most of these lands in the South are privately owned and held by small landowners. The temptation to sell to commercial and residential developers is strong. But the problem is that as more forests are lost, the forests that end up providing wood and paper products become located farther and farther away from the suppliers who end up selling products to companies as diverse as Procter and Gamble, Kimberly-Clark and U-Haul. Meanwhile, as more forests adjacent to urban areas are lost, other forests become isolated in the middle of all this development, and become islands from which native wildlife cannot migrate.
The challenge companies and environmental groups both share is to provide compelling incentives for landowners to maintain their forests, which across the South have two vital functions. First, as in anywhere else, they provide a natural habitat for local species and serve the earth as a carbon sink. Second, they need to provide enough revenues for landowners so they have enough incentives to keep title to their land. Sustainable forestry certifications, such as the programs run by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), have a solid record at improving the stewardship of these lands while providing their owners a steady income from their holdings.
One that point, one challenge sustainable forestry advocates face is that there is plenty of demand for certified pulp and paper products. The paper, wood fiber and chip markets buy trees that regenerate quickly, and also benefit landowners as these sales allow them to keep thinning their lands on a regular basis. But in the solid wood industry, which needs the older and larger woods to make goods such as furniture, there is less of a demand for certified products.
“It’s the classic chicken and the egg problem,” acknowledged St. Pierre. “Do we need to work more in order to build a strong certified supply of wood, which would mean getting more sawmills certified, or do we begin by working at the consumer and retailer levels? We need to know which one will be at the tipping point where we can increase certification and therefore the supply of such wood across the supply chain.”
A forum such as GFTN-NA can bring together professionals from various industries, such as the paper, furniture and building products sectors. “WWF does a great job of fostering a place where companies can come together at a GFTN forum and both speak freely while sharing ideas,” said St. Pierre.
The results are certainly encouraging. Efforts such as those led by WWF appear to make a difference. While recent deforestation trends in some nations like Brazil are worrisome, forest conservation efforts are paying off. In its recent report on its sustainable development goals (SDGs), the United Nations concluded that the rate of forest loss worldwide has been on the decline – with sustainable forestry efforts one reason for this reversal. But the problems are complex, which is why St. Pierre insists initiatives such as GFTN are necessary. “WWF can’t do it alone, Rainforest Alliance can’t do it alone, and companies can’t do it alone,” she said.
Image credit: Ken Lund/Flickr
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.