The Conflict Between Certification and Forestry Science

As the environmental ethic becomes more trendy, we see a growing trend in “greenwashing,” the effort by some to exaggerate the environmental benefits of various activities for personal gain or profit. Environmental activists are quick to point out greenwashing when it is practiced by corporations. They tend to go silent, however, when the greenwashers are fellow activists or government agencies.

The recent USA Today series titled “Green Inc.” highlights the extent to which corporations, environmental activists and government agencies work together to promote programs that look good but bring questionable benefit for the environment.

One example stands out – the partnership between the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The head of FSC was effusive in his praise of the USGBC’s green building standards, saying they have been “one of the most significant drivers of forest conservation in history.” That’s right, in history.

One reason FSC is so vocal in its support is that USGBC has excluded other forest certification groups from their system. As a result, the USGBC’s standard, called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, has very little impact on real-world forest management.  Here’s why.

First, FSC has certified fewer acres of forest than other groups and many of these acres are overseas, not in North America. As a result, if builders want to receive points for FSC-certified wood, they may have to ship wood from long distances. Any environmental benefit could be lost in the energy used for shipping.

Second, FSC’s standards are often influenced more by politics rather than by science. One good example is the very different requirements in each region of the United States and around the world to receive FSC certification. A harvest that would not meet the standards in my home state of Washington could be acceptable to FSC in Idaho, for example. The difference can be even more dramatic between harvests in the United States and harvests in other countries.

This is one reason the Society of American Foresters has criticized the U.S. Green Building Council for excluding other standards. The CEO of the Society wrote that requiring “FSC or better is neither logical nor scientific.”

Finally, there are numerous misconceptions about FSC timber that are often encouraged by advocates. In Washington state, for example, the state Department of Ecology argued for using FSC timber in construction because it would prevent harvest of old-growth forests. The problem, however, is that no rational builder would ever use extremely high-value old growth timber for home construction. Old growth timber is rare, making it an expensive commodity. Most timber used in construction is only 40 to 60 years old, far from the 200 years or more of age that typifies old growth.

Despite these weaknesses, the USGBC continues to favor FSC-certified wood. FSC is willing to lavish praise on USGBC’s system to secure a monopoly in a particular market niche. Protecting the brand has become more important than providing environmental benefit.

This is consistent with FSC’s approach elsewhere. For example, while other certification systems allow forests to receive and advertise multiple certifications, FSC does not. In one case FSC actually attacked a certified-supplier, telling the company it could not list other certifications since they are “FSC’s competitor.”

As a result, FSC and USGBC act more like the stereotype of corporations, protecting their market share even at the expense of the environment.

It is frustrating because FSC is built upon a very sound principle: people are willing to pay more for timber harvested in an environmentally responsible manner. FSC should be praised as a pioneer in promoting this important concept.

FSC should not, however, sacrifice the core principle of promoting sustainable forestry in favor of its market position. Competition among certification systems, like competition among companies, keeps each system honest, offering consumers a choice. Welcoming such competition is of course difficult, but if the ultimate goal is helping the environment, innovation in forest sustainability should be welcomed from any corner.

The U.S. Green Building Council should recognize the benefits of certification competition and give builders who care about sustainable forestry a choice. The environment would be better off.

Seattle’s Dolphin Safe, Certified Forests

With any luck, Seattle’s urban forests will soon be certified dolphin safe. That may seem strange, but it would be just about as meaningful as the city recently receiving a forest certification it promises it will never use.

With predictable fanfare, the City of Seattle has announced its urban forests have received certification from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), stating that  the “Seattle park system meets the gold standard in environmentally friendly forestry.” City Hall’s senior forester Mark Mead noted “The FSC certification helps ensure we are doing the right things to assure a healthy and sustainable forest for Seattle.”

Advocates of the certification say the city can now sell any timber from the urban forests to consumers who want to know the timber came from a sustainably managed forest. FSC and other certification systems are typically associated with working forests where timber is being harvested and sold.

The City of Seattle, however, promises it won’t actually use the certification. “We want to be crystal clear that we don’t have a mandate to sell any timber,” says Mead. In fact, the City is so strident about this position, it promises to never to sell trees, even if they have fallen down. “The certification would allow us to sell it as FSC-certified timber, if we wanted to. But there’s infinitely more value in leaving a tree that falls,” said Michael Yadrick, an ecologist with Seattle Parks.

The certification report, which the City of Seattle paid $2,000 to complete, has little to say about forest management. The top concern of FSC assessors was the fact that “off-leash dogs are causing erosion” and other impacts. This isn’t a forestry issue, but an urban parks management issue.

Ironically, the FSC assessment does make one recommendation that contradicts Seattle Parks’ harvest policy. FSC auditors recommended that Seattle Parks “develop a local procurement policy for building and maintenance materials.” As FSC is telling Seattle to use local timber for building, Seattle is telling FSC they will do everything they can to make sure those local materials don’t come from its own lands.

This is not to say that Seattle Parks should be harvesting, but it highlights how useless it is to use the public’s money and paid staff time to receive certification for timber production the city promises will never occur.

So, why do it? The City of Seattle is quick to admit it is about image. Like so much of our environmental policy, the goal is to cultivate a green image for the city and its politicians, even if the effect of the policy on the environment is zero.

Seattle Parks may argue FSC certification ensures they are managing forests sustainably for the future, even if they don’t produce timber. This, however, is contradicted by the audit report. FSC auditors made no recommendations regarding forest management. The closest they came is when the audit notes Seattle Parks “should give consideration” to creating a range of tree ages in urban forests.

Receiving FSC certification – a certification that added no new knowledge and won’t be used and actually contradicts Seattle Park’s forest policy – is about as useful as receiving a dolphin safe certification. Although, we imagine they will also be concerned about “fecal contamination” from off-leash dogs.

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.

Uncertified Conversion: Unintended Consequences of Forest Certification

Nonindustrial private forest landowners provide about half of the nation’s wood and steward nearly 360 million acres of forestland. These lands also provide numerous ecosystem services such as water purification, wildlife habitat, and carbon sequestration.

Forest certification, generally considered a voluntary act to recognize good forest stewardship, may hamper the ability of some of these small private forest owners to manage their land. Timber products flow through a chain of custody from forest owner to processor and through production to create the final product. Certification requirements along that supply chain can restrict market access for non-certified forest owners. Home Depot, for example, sells certified timber products, hence buys from certified processors who must buy from certified forests owners. The cost of certification, however, may outweigh the benefits.

Forest certification can be a costly endeavor for small forest owners. Certification entails the costs of the certification process (auditor visits, travel, report writing, and monitoring) and on the ground expenditures of additional forest planning, infrastructure, and possible reduced harvest.

To date, there are few reported price premiums on certified forest products. As a result, most certification costs are borne by the producer.

Evidence reported by Reed Watson of PERC suggests that increased certification requirements or mandates “will produce the unintended consequence of hastening forest conversion (Forest Landowner March/April 2012).” The small forest land owner that faces restricted timber markets due to certification requirements may find forest conversion more beneficial than certification.

This blog is cross-posted from

Is Forest Certification Helping or Harming the World’s Forests?

What began as a way to offer foresters in developing countries an incentive to practice sustainable forestry has, unfortunately, become a tool to impose particular politics on developing countries.

Forest certification systems, a part of some companies’ corporate social responsibility efforts, were originally designed to offer a price premium to those foresters who followed a basic set of forestry guidelines. Systems like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) promised to help those who followed their guidelines – both environmentally and economically.

Too often this process does not produce its intended results. Instead, some in the environmental community used the standard as a political tool – hanging banners from big box lumber stores – and turning the systems into trade restrictions that harm the developing countries the greens claim to care about.

Forest Certification Audit is designed to examine the ways forest certification systems have gotten off track. They left the science and economics behind (even as they promised to follow them) and have now replaced them with political motives. It is often wealthy Americans lecturing poor foresters in developing countries – in many cases the same wealthy Americans who didn’t honor their promise to pay a price premium for certified wood.

Our simple guiding principle is this: prosperity and good forestry go hand in hand, and poverty and politics are the enemies of sustainable forestry.

The evidence of this is everywhere. Last year the United Nations celebrated the International Year of the Forest highlighting the link between prosperity and sound forestry. The U.N. noted that forestland is actually expanding in the Northern Hemisphere while the areas where forests are at risk are primarily the poorest areas of the Southern Hemisphere. Indeed, active forestry is not the culprit. Most trees in the Southern Hemisphere are cut down to cook food or heat homes. Focusing on active forestry as the cause is misleading.

Forest Certification Audit will focus on promoting science-based forestry that offers developing countries a way to benefit, trade and grow. We will examine which certification systems achieve those goals and which are failing. We will identify the real areas of concern for forest habitat and wildlife so we can honestly assess their effectiveness. Such assessments stand in stark contrast to chasing mistaken, but on-the-surface, emotionally satisfying political issues that take our attention away from real opportunities to help forestland.

And to those that may disagree with what we have to say, we want to hear from you.  Forest Certification Audit will be an open platform to learn about the various certification systems, and hear from their champions, including FSC.  We aim to foster a healthy dialogue to educate stakeholders, public officials, civil society and concerned citizens.