What Federal Fire Policy Can Learn From Forest Certification

One of our consistent themes is that forest certification systems cannot ignore the economic well-being of foresters and communities if they are to successfully promote sustainable forestry. The same forces are at work in the United States with regard to forest fire policy.

A recent forum in the New York Times offered a range of opinions about how to address the increase in intense forest fire in federal forests. Much of the discussion was about the cost of those fires and how to find funding to prevent and fight massive wildland fire. A couple important issues must be noted.

First, humans are part of the landscape. There is a desire by some to return the forest to a “natural” pattern of fire, one that played a role in these ecosystems for thousands of years. This is not a thoughtful approach. Humans are, and will continue to be, a part of the landscape.

Development near forests means we have to protect those communities and that we have whittled down some of the available habitat for wildlife. The latter means we have a smaller margin of error when preserving the range of habitat types across an ecosystem. I worked on a forest fire in the North Cascades where a spotted owl nest was destroyed by a lightning-caused fire. Should we have let it burn, killing a threatened species, simply because the fire started naturally?

Prior to civilization, forest ecosystems could handle habitat destruction in a way they can’t now. Glibly calling fire “natural” and pretending humans can be removed from equation isn’t an approach that makes any sense for humans or wildlife.

Second, there is a reason the debate over forest fire centers around federal lands: funding. Forests that generate revenue, like private or state trust lands, have the funding available to do the thinning and other treatments that are necessary. Thinning can do some of the work that fire used to do by removing small trees and allowing larger trees to grow and become healthy and fire-resistant. Now that we (properly) fight fires, some other activity must play that role. The federal government, however, doesn’t have the money to undertake those activities.

There is a great deal of discussion of the funding issues in the New York Times forum. One of the authors has suggestions for how to budget. Another writes “Money matters, but…” The basic issue, however, is that without revenue generation on federal lands, there will never be the funding available to prevent forest ecosystems from becoming unnaturally fire-prone — overstocked with many small trees all competing for water, light and nutrients.

Rather than allow some responsible forestry, some advocates want us to “rethink development patterns” and use social “planning” that would allow massive fires to burn while limiting the risk to communities. This does not, however, address the impact of those fires on forest ecosystems. Over a century, perhaps, allowing massive fires to burn could return the forest to a more natural state, but the cost in the interim would be massive. This is obvious that fire is being used as a political tool to promote a particular view of social planning.

In the end, there are two ways to return federal forests to a more healthy, natural state. We can let them burn, hoping the cost to communities and ecosystems will be worth it decades from now. The alternative is to create a sustainable funding source for forest restoration by generating revenue from those forests with some harvesting. It is the approach that works on private and state trust lands across the country.

It is certainly true that federal forests are often more remote and are a more difficult place to fight fires. Hamstringing ourselves by limiting the available funding becomes all the more foolish in that circumstance.

There is a notion that separating forestry from issues of “money” will be good for forests. Where we see such an approach attempted, however, it often fails because it ignores the reality that humans have an impact on forests. Certification systems were created to recognize that reality, offering a financial benefit for sound forest management. Federal forest fire policy could learn something from that approach. If we don’t provide a financial benefit to those who manage forests responsibly by reducing the risk of fire, we will continue to lament enormous fires and the inability to find funding to fight and prevent them.

How Can Certification Move Beyond a Niche Market – Guilt or Business?

A recent study from the London School of Economics and Political Science on “The Roles and Limits of Certification” says a great deal about the challenges faced by certification systems if they want to expand. The report notes that certification systems already have a share of the market, and the authors note “By the end of 2011, 7 percent of wild landings of fish for human consumption, 9 percent of the world’s productive forests, and 17 percent
of coffee produced globally were certified.” Moving beyond that, however, is the challenge.

Rather than achieving certification to improve profitability or market share, the study says the main reason certification programs have expanded is that early adopters have signed on despite the lack of business benefit. “Certification systems have expanded most rapidly when market-leading firms choose them as a means to incorporate improved practices into a supply chain,” write the authors, saying “certification systems set a ‘gold standard’ with incentives for those who take steps in that direction.” So, a few firms use certification to establish their position at the top of a particular market.

Certification, however, doesn’t lead to market success — it follows it. Well-established companies are willing to expend resources on certification because they believe in the cause. One of the authors, Dr. Kira Matus, told one news outlet that “One of the interesting things we found is that businesses who decide to certify their products for the most part don’t do it because they expect to secure a price premium in the market, but rather because they see certification as good overall business practice. Our findings indicate that certification is not necessarily about tapping consumers willing to pay a bit more and it may not actually result in a direct increase in profits in the short term.” The phrase “good overall business practice” can be read to indicate that participation in certification systems has more to do with the personal feelings of company managers than good business.

How successful can a certification system be when it relies primarily on warm feelings and guilt to the detriment of sound business practices? Not very. This is undoubtedly one reason forest certification systems have not spread beyond their current level.

Those advocating the expansion of forest certification have focused on two approaches.

First are those looking to impose certification using political means by regulating buying practices and other such rules. This recalls the saying “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion, still.” Companies required to meet regulations and bend to political pressure will work to find ways around the rules, undermining the effectiveness of those rules. This was one of the main findings of Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom, who argued institutions that impose rules are less effective at promoting responsible resource use than voluntary systems.

The alternative is to harmonize good business with the goals of the certification system. This allows the system to reach those who may not be true believers for the cause. It is the only system that can effectively reach one group the study says hasn’t been impacted by certification systems thus far — “certification has not demonstrated consistent capacity to affect the ‘bottom of the market’.” An economic incentive can bring these businesses on board. By way of contrast, those organizations are the most likely to find ways to game — regulatory attempts to impose rules on them.

As long as certification systems rely on pressure and guilt rather than sound economic benefit, it is unlikely they will effectively expand their reach, and the environmental and social benefits they hope to provide.

What Are You Buying When You Purchase FSC-certified Wood?

Writing on the Woodworking Network site, the owner of Re-View, a manufacturer of custom wood window replicas for historic landmarks across the country, expresses concern about whether FSC-certified wood lives up to its environmental promises.

The author, Brooks Gentleman, expresses concern that although FSC adds additional costs, it does not provide assurance that FSC-labeled wood actually generates the environmental benefits being promised. He writes:

The FSC certification process also burdens the system with unnecessary costs. Not only does the FSC certify forest managers and owners, but they have a chain of custody (COC) certification for manufacturers and subcontractors who utilize certified wood. This means that small furniture manufacturers, casework companies, and millwork shops need to go through the cost and bureaucracy associated with securing and maintaining a certification. Since there is little to no policing of the certified parties to confirm they are practicing the proper utilization of certified woods, the certification amounts to little more than a right to use the FSC logo in marketing materials.

These are themes we have examined in the past. When people receive certified wood, what do they really receive? What are they paying for? These questions will linger and if certification systems, like FSC, want to expand their reach, they will have to address them effectively.

You can read the entire piece on FSC and green construction here.

Does Forestry in Developing Countries Create Deforestation? New Study Says No.

One of the arguments used by advocates of forest certification systems is that certification prevents deforestation and a range of impacts, including climate impacts, associated with deforestation. A new study, however, argues that active forestry is not a cause either of deforestation or, by extension, climate impacts.

The study by Winrock International used NASA satellites to estimate the loss of forest cover and the impact that loss had on carbon emissions. The headline finding is that carbon emissions due to deforestation is “approximately one third of previously published estimates and represents just 10 percent of the total global anthropogenic carbon emissions over the time period analyzed.” The study was published in the peer-reviewed journal Science.

In a discussion with Nancy Harris, one of the authors, I asked what role ongoing, active forestry had in these carbon emissions. In the release announcing the study, the authors argue that reducing forest-related emissions involves promoting “forest livelihoods.” Harris confirmed that active forestry was not a contributor to deforestation, saying the problem was “outright clearing” associated with other activities. Harvests that are re-planted, however, are not a significant contributor to climate impact.

The study calculated the amount of land impacted by examining forestland that had moved from greater than 25 percent forest cover in 2000 to less than 25 percent cover by 2005. Harris noted the analysis may have picked up some timber harvests that had not yet re-grown. She and her co-authors are currently updating their research to cover the period from 2006 to 2010. This new study, which they hope to release in December, will provide further insight into the pace of deforestation and should also give more information about the role active forestry plays in the forests of developing countries.

There may be other reasons to purchase timber certified by a science-based system. This study, however, demonstrates that forest certification systems designed to reduce timber harvests in developing countries are unlikely to have a measurable impact on carbon emissions.