Green Certification and the Future of Family Forests

J.P. Caulfield, R. G. Chambers and C. T. Fields

The authors are Vice President, President, and Forest Information Specialist, TimberVest, LLC
8744 Main St., Woodstock, GA 30188

Forest certification is a hot topic; it is difficult to pick up a forestry publication without reading about it.  Most writers view it positively and think America’s forests “need” certification.  This is cause for concern because it is a huge assumption.  It also happens to be wrong.

Not surprisingly, the newly-growing “certification industry” sees its need as self-evident. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), for example, markets certification with statements like:  “There is huge public concern about the destruction of the world’s forests.  More and more people demand products that come from well-managed forests.  (Forest Stewardship Council 2001). 

Such generalizations lack supporting documentation.  In fact, available evidence suggests the opposite: that the public at large does not “demand” products from well-managed forests if they cost more than what they are buying now.

The assumption that America’s forests need certification should concern landowners, because there is no compelling evidence to suggest America’s forests are in danger.  In fact, available evidence suggests the opposite: that US forests are healthy, diverse, and productive.

Some certification models represent a base infringement on individual property rights.  Their broad acceptance would have precisely the opposite results proponents claim to want.  They would promote poor forest management, create economically non-viable forests, and raise income disparities between urban and rural areas.  

Certification’s greatest impact would fall on family forests, which are the nation’s largest timber producers and a group that has been excluded from the process that gave rise to the certification industry.  Most private landowners are unfamiliar with the certification issue and what is in store if it is widely adopted.

Sustainable” Forestry and the “Need” for Certification

There is little debate to suggest whether America’ s forests actually require certification.  Proponents argue that forests should be managed to be “sustainable.”  

The notion that forests should be sustainably managed does not need to be argued, because foresters have always advocated sustainable forestry.  In the clamor for certification, it is forgotten that creating sustainable forests is the reason the forestry profession developed in the first place. 

But certification proponents avoid defining “sustainability” because, the more ambiguously it is defined, the greater the opportunity for the certification industry to view it as a blank check.  This allows the imposition of standards that are biologically unsound, economically unjustified, and inconsistent with a capitalist system.

The notion that American forests “need” certification presumes they are badly managed and declining.  Poor management can lead to a “nonsustainable” condition, where total forest area, productivity, and biodiversity are reduced.  But is this actually happening?  

It depends on the definition of “sustainable.”  Since the certification industry provides little guidance, we define a sustainable forest as one capable of providing a continuous supply of forest outputs on a long-term basis. It is not the only possible definition, but it has the virtue of simplicity and is relatively unambiguous.  It also allows us to quantitatively measure whether America’s forests are sustainably managed.  Consider the following questions:

(1)     Is the forest area increasing or declining?

(2)     Is total forest growing stock volume increasing or declining?

(3)     Is per-acre productivity increasing or decreasing?

(4)     Are forests regenerated adequately and in a timely manner?

(5)     Is the volume in large diameter trees increasing or decreasing?

(6) How does the area of plantation-grown forests compare to that of natural forest?

Figure 1 shows total US forestland acreage since the mid-1800s (USDA Forest Service 2000).  Forest area declined from the mid 1800s to the start of the 20th century in response to the rapid rise in agricultural land clearing.  But since the first decade of the 20th century, the forest area has been essentially unchanged.   Despite a growing population and a period of historically unprecedented industrialization, the US forest land base rose since 1900.  This hints at a sustainable forest condition.

Some would argue that this increase might include many acres of poorly stocked forests with declining productivity.  If true, it would suggest forests were not managed sustainably.

Figure 2 shows changes in forest growing stock volume since 1953 (USDA Forest Service 2000).  Volumes on NIPF lands rose 73%.   Since the number of forested acres was almost unchanged, it means per-acre forest productivity rose.  

If forest management is sustainable, harvested acres should be quickly regenerated, so the area of non-stocked forestland should be low.

Figure 3 shows that 1.5% of US timberland area was non-stocked in 1997 (USDA Forest Service 2000).  Moreover,  the area of unproductive timberland declined dramatically (82%) over the last half-century.  The area in larger, sawtimber-size trees also rose.

The increase in sawtimber acres is worth examining in detail.  Certification advocates prefer big trees to small trees because they consider them better indicators of biodiversity and reflective of the forest conditions that existed in a less-industrialized era. 

Figure 4 shows softwood sawtimber volume, by year and ownership category (USDA Forest Service 2000).  Volumes rose steadily on NIPF lands, increasing 60% since 1953.  Volume also rose on public lands. Only industrial timberlands witnessed a decline in sawtimber volume.

Figure 5 shows that hardwood sawtimber more than doubled on NIPF lands since 1953 (USDA Forest Service 2000).  Hardwood sawtimber volumes also increased on both public and industry holdings. 

Figure 6 shows total growing stock volume rose in virtually all diameter classes (USDA Forest Service 2000).  Not only did sawtimber volume rise, but also in most diameter classes it is now in larger trees.  The sole exception is the very largest size classes, (+29” size) category.  But even here, the volume rose over the past decade.

As Figures 7 and 8 show, the diameter increases have occurred both for softwoods and hardwoods (USDA Forest Service 2000).   For hardwoods, the proportion of growing stock rose dramatically in all diameter classes. 

Some would argue this picture is biased because it overlooks the impact of forest plantations.  Some members of the certification industry dislike plantations, because they claim to be concerned that plantations are replacing natural forests. 

Figure 9 shows that plantations account for 5.4% of total US forest area.  Most are held by forest industry, which has planted 25% of its timberland area.  Just 5.3% of NIPF lands are in plantations, and 1.2% of public lands are planted.

Globally, the importance of plantations is even more telling.  Two independent studies have estimated the proportion of world wood supplies coming from plantations.  Caulfield (1998) estimated that between 17 and 22% of world timber supplies come from plantations.  Work by Hagler (1997) put it at 18% of total supply. 

But worldwide, plantations account for just over 3% of the world’s forest area.  Because plantations grow faster than natural forests, every plantation acre allows a disproportionately large reduction in the timber supply burden on natural forests.  This frees natural forest acres to non-consumptive uses.

In short, no compelling case exists for imposing certification on US forests.  America’s forests, in terms of total area, productivity, tree-size distribution, and proportion of natural versus man-made forest area are thriving. 

Nonetheless, there is increased interest in certification, and the industry continues to grow.  Does certification truly promote sustainable forestry?  There are many certification schemes; a complete discussion is beyond this article.  So let’s consider the three models best known within the US. These also represent the widest spectrum of views of what certifying bodies expect of participants.

Certification Models:  The Good,  the Sad, and the Ugly

We refer to the three certification models as “The Good, the Sad, and the Ugly.” These are represented respectively by the American Forestry Foundation’s American Tree Farm System, the AF&PA’s Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification.

The Good:  The American Tree Farm System

The American Tree Farm System exists “…to provide conservation education to private forestland owners in the United States….The Tree Farm system goal is to reach out to these landowners and assist them in managing their forests sustainably”  (American Tree Farm System 2001).  The System dates to 1941, and includes over 70,000 US certified tree farms.

Certification is conducted through the American Forestry Foundation, the oldest and largest voluntary third party verification group in the United States.  The objective is to “…recognize the practice of excellent forestry on private forest lands. This certification is intended to raise the visibility of the practitioners in their respective communities and inspire and motivate other surrounding non-managing forest landowners to practice sustainable forestry” (American Tree Farm System 2001).

Three features set Tree Farm apart from the other systems considered.  First, since certification takes place on individual ownerships, it focuses on factors the owner can actually control, and in which he has a vested interest.  This is not true with FSC certification, which includes numerous social goals in their model.

Second, Tree Farm is the most inclusive of the certification systems considered.  Membership is voluntary and open to any interested timberland owner, but non-members are not discriminated against by the organization.

Members are expected to write a forest management plan, regenerate harvested areas promptly, maintain water quality, and protect and enhance wildlife habitat.  But in advocating these practices, the System imposes relatively few hard and fast rules about precisely how landowners must perform them.  

Properties are certified through independent third-party foresters.  The service is provided on a volunteer basis, so the certifier operates with no economic conflict of interest. 

Third, Tree Farm certification recognizes that ownership objectives vary.  Some landowners prefer to grow pine plantations while others may manage for wildlife.   Tree Farm avoids value judgments about who is doing the “right” thing, leaving these decisions to the owner.  In other words,  the Tree Farm System values diversity. 

Tree Farm certification embodies a positive world view because it recognizes that landowners are rational and want to manage their property to achieve desirable personal and social goals.   It is consistent with a free enterprise system.

Tree Farm views itself as an educational organization, not a regulatory bureaucracy.  While landowners are assumed to be rational, Tree Farm understands that initially they may not possess the forestry expertise needed to effectively manage their properties.  So the organization provides numerous educational opportunities to overcome this obstacle.  In addition to 8,000 volunteer foresters, the Tree Farm system provides publications, workshops, and field days to help landowners make informed decisions.

The Sad:  The Sustainable Forestry Initiative

The Sustainable Forestry Initiative was established by the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) in 1994, in response to accusations of poor management from preservationist groups and to more extreme certification models proposed by groups like FSC.  The AF&PA states that SFI is  “….an exacting standard of environmental principles, objectives and performance measures that integrates the perpetual growing and harvesting of trees with the protection of wildlife, plants, soil and water quality and a wide range of other conservation goals.” (AF&PA 1999).

The SFI, like the Tree Farm System, advocates “sustainable” forestry, although the term is viewed vaguely.  Operationally, the SFI promotes forestry that is environmentally responsible and include practices like (1) promptly regenerating harvested areas, (2) protecting water quality, (3) conserving biodiversity and wildlife habitat (4), minimizing visual impacts of harvesting, (5) protecting places of historical, ecological and biological significance, and (6) improving wood utilization.

But the SFI is “The Sad” for several reasons.  First, it is reactive.  The largest forest products companies, representing a majority of AF&PA members, have promoted scientifically sound forestry for decades.   By suddenly advocating the “need” for SFI certification, these firms have basically repudiated the good stewardship their foresters have practiced for over fifty years. 

Industry’s research investments – tree improvement programs being a single example – have tremendously improved forest management on industry and family forests alike.  The SFI, by ignoring these very real accomplishments, provides the impression of an industry that has something to hide.

AF&PA President W. H. Moore has stated that the SFI, on reaching its fifth anniversary had reached “…an important reference point for many of the original goals we set when we first began this ambitious campaign to transform the forest products industry”  (AF&PA 1999). It is unclear what the industry is being transformed from.  It is one thing to strive for improvement, which is an appropriate goal for any industry. But the AF&PA gives the impression that the forest products industry pre-1994 is the same industry that existed pre-1894. It wasn’t.

The SFI is exclusionary. AF&PA makes SFI compliance a mandatory condition for membership. SFI was initially marketed by going to the CEOs of the major corporations. When these firms bought into SFI, by virtue of their market dominance they basically forced the issue with the rest of the industry. This contrasts sharply to the inclusive model advocated by Tree Farm.

The AF&PA approach is contrary to industry’s long-term interests. The SFI suggests to the public that in past years the industry managed its lands irresponsibly. AF&PA appears to want to give the impression that it exists as an industry regulating body, rather than an  industry association.

In fact, the AF&PA actually brags that:   Sixteen member companies have been expelled from the Association for failure to uphold the standard set by the SFI program.”  (AF&PA 1999).  Leading by edict is a poor substitute for leading by example, and AF&PA has alienated numerous firms. 

Until recently, AF&PA only tried to impose its standards solely on member firms.  More ominously, AF&PA is becoming more ambitious and attempting to impose SFI certification on US family forests and foreign timber growers:  “We are revolutionizing industrial forestry in America, and we are beginning to expand the practice of sustainable forestry beyond our own forests to public and privately owned forestland, and even to other countries”  (AF&PA 1999).  

Considering the cavalier treatment industry has afforded its own members, this is cause for concern. 

The Ugly:  The Forest Stewardship Council

The FSC, established in 1993, claims that: The Forest Stewardship Council is an independent, non-profit organization that promotes responsible forestry.   A standards-setting body for a forest certification system, the FSC, through its Principles and Criteria for Forest Management, has established the highest standards for environmentally, economically and socially responsible forestry”  (FSC 2001).

Certification is based on 10 “principles,” intended to be applied to all forests worldwide, regardless of ecological characteristics and whether publicly or privately owned.  Certification standards are developed at a regional level by FSC in conjunction with regional committees.  

FSC certification bundles numerous social goals into the certification process.  Consequently, their principles and standards are ambiguous, arbitrary, and conflicting.  It is best described as a social engineering approach to certification. 

That the principles apply equally to public and private lands says much about FSC’s philosophical foundation.  Briefly, all forests are viewed as public goods, except that private landowners are obliged to pay their own bills and shoulder the risks for those lands.

FSC certification standards are still being developed for most regions, so our discussion is limited to the draft forest certification standards for the southeastern US (FSC 1999).  Space does not allow a complete presentation since the 10 “principles,” and accompanying details run 37 single-spaced pages.  But some examples are instructive. 

Principle 3 addresses Indigenous Peoples, which in part (section 3.2) states that:  Forest management shall not threaten or diminish, either directly or indirectly, the resources or tenure rights of indigenous people.” (FSC 1999).

The FSC does not consider “indigenous” a family which has managed and inhabited a property for the last 150 years.  Taken at face value, Principle 3 implies either that a landowner’s property should be returned to the indigenous group that formerly occupied the land, or that any proposed management on that land must be approved by the indigenous people who live nearby.

Principle 4 concerns community relations and worker’s rights:  (4.1) “The communities within, or adjacent to, the forest management area should be given opportunities for employment, training and other services”  (FSC 1999).   

The extent to which the owner of a 500-acre forest is responsible for employing and training the local labor force is not made clear.  Must he be prepared to pay their college tuition?  What if the landowner knows the local wood dealer is dishonest?  The principle says the landowner should deal with these people.  Most important, this principle has nothing to do with a well-managed forest.

Section 4.4 states:  “Management planning and operations shall incorporate the results of evaluations of social impact.  Consultations shall be maintained with people and groups directly affected by management operations”  (FSC 1999).   

Landowners are expected to consider local views about aesthetics, cultural sites, access, employment, and landscape level impacts.  Put another way, any whim of individuals with no connection to a forest property is placed above the goals of the landowner who pays all the costs and takes all the risks. 

Principle 5 concerns forest benefits:  (5.1) “ Forest management should strive toward economic viability, while taking into account the full environmental, social and operational costs of production, and ensuring the investments necessary to maintain the ecological productivity of the forest”  (FSC 1999).   

 It is not clear whether FSC considers a 1% or a 10% return economically viable.  It does not suggest whether “economic viability”  is the same for all landowners.  How do the certifiers make an objective determination?  They cannot, since the principle is arbitrary.

Section 5.1.2 states “The landowner’s resources should be sufficient to financially support post-harvest management activities such as road maintenance, silvicultural treatments long-term forest health and management, and monitoring.”  (FSC 1999).

The certifiers decide who is sufficiently wealthy to be allowed to grow certified trees.    This is raw elitism.

Principle 6 states:  “Forest management shall conserve biological diversity and its associated values, water resources, soils and unique and fragile ecosystems and landscapes, and  by doing so, maintain the ecological functions and integrity of the forest.”  (FSC 1999).

 What happens when this principle conflicts with economic viability, as it easily could?  There is no answer.  There can be no answer, since the criteria are undefined.

Principle 10 presents FSC’s view on plantations.   Plantations are regarded with suspicion, and the plantation management regimes FSC “allows” would create less productive forests than current technology permits.  Genetically-modified trees (principle 6.8) are prohibited outright.  Practices such as fertilization may be allowed if the landowner submits sufficient scientific proof to the certifiers (sec. 10.6.4).  Pests will be controlled using integrated pest management relying primarily on biological control methods rather than chemical pesticides and fertilizers (10.7).   Compliance costs are irrelevant, which conflicts with “economic viability.”

FSC certification principles envision a static system characterized by minimal change.  The intent is to push landowners towards creating and maintaining naturally regenerated, slow-growing forests.  In contrast to Tree Farm, FSC places no value on diversity of either forest condition or management objectives.  

The FSC is elitist and espouses a negative world view.  It presumes all forests are public goods.  Landowners are assumed to lack the enlightened guidance provided by FSC bureaucrats, and would otherwise make the “wrong” decisions about how to manage their property.  FSC does not attempt to educate or inform, but to control.  Their model is completely at odds with a free enterprise system.

FSC’s process for establishing certification standards also sheds light on their methods.  

It claims that “FSC aims to clear up the confusion (about well managed forests) by providing a truly independent, international and credible labeling scheme on timber and timber products.”  (FSC 2001).   

The committee that developed the draft set of standards for the US southeastern states consisted of 18 members.  It included 5 academics, 5 consultants, 1 professional certifier, 4 NGO members, 1 public-agency member, and 2 landowners.  So owners of family forests, who own 70% of southern timberlands, and the group with the largest economic stake in forest certification, constituted just 11% of the committee.

At least one-third of the committee consisted of financially interested parties, in the form of consultants and certifiers.  These individuals had direct conflicts of interest in developing objective, transparent standards.  The same might also be true of the academic members, since academics often work as certifiers on a consulting basis.  At least one NGO member worked as a consultant part-time.  So between 1/3 to over 2/3 of the committee members had direct financial conflicts of interest.

Initially there was a third landowner representative on the WG.  But she resigned in protest after becoming convinced that financial conflicts of interest existed among committee members and that FSC never intended for the interests of family forests to be adequately represented.  Also,  since FSC had final veto authority on the standards, it viewed the regional committee as a rubber stamp  (Lynda Beame 2001, personal communication).  

In short, the FSC is riddled with conflicts of interest, and represents a base infringement on private property rights.  Contrary to their claims, FSC certification is neither independent nor credible.

The FSC would argue that our claims are overblown by stating that certification is “voluntary.”  But this is a disingenuous argument, because they do not intend for it to be voluntary for long.  One FSC goal is to establish a  “chain of custody,” process – FSC Principle 8 – for certified forests, whereby the source of a timber product is verified.  To carry an FSC trademark, products must come from independently certified forests. 

But the FSC intends to make it impossible to sell wood products that do not bear the FSC seal of approval (Carlton 2000).  Their means of establishing market power is through organizations like the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), which intimidates forest products retailers and tries to force them to adopt FSC certification standards.  Over the past few years, in the US alone, RAN has organized harassment campaigns against Home Depot, Wickes’, Lowe’s, and Staples. 

Along with activities such as the theft of forest products from retailers, (Anonymous 2001), RAN’s strategy  is to send lists of demands to corporations, threatening to make their lives difficult if they are not met.  FSC condones, but does not claim credit for this activity.  But this gives the lie to so-called “voluntary” certification.  If FSC truly intends certification to be “voluntary,” it must publicly condemn RAN and related organizations. 

The family forest owner who resigned from the southeastern certification standards committee eloquently summarized FSC’s intent:

 Standards are written to meet a market that does not exist while efforts are underway at the same time to create a market that requires the standards that are being written. The producer will suffer the financial burden of meeting the standards while the consumer suffers the financial burden of buying a certified product.  Meanwhile, all the money lands in the lap of a self aggrandized entity who is self empowered not only to set the standards but also to certify the certifiers”  (Beame 1998).

Forest Certification Outcomes

If the FSC certification model became widely adopted, it would mean first, that forest productivity would fall.  Fewer acres would be in plantations, and existing plantations would be less intensively managed.  Part of the harvest would therefore shift to slower-growing natural forests.  Per-acre growth would decline, and harvesting would have to occur on more acres. 

Harvesting more acres requires more miles of forest roads. Erosion is a minor problem in most US forests, but most erosion that does occur is usually concentrated around roadbeds. 

Since certification favors selection cuts over clearcutting, each acre will be entered more often.  In short, certification would result in more frequent levels of human activity on each acre. 

A larger harvest area means longer haul distances, which would raise timber price volatility.  More fossil fuels would be consumed to transport timber meaning timber prices would be more closely linked to energy prices. 

Growing trees would become less profitable.  Apart from the initial cost of certification, the FSC requires annual auditing, which increases overhead.  Because management intensity would decline, trees will grow more slowly, rotation lengths would increase, and investment returns would decline.  This is contrary to FSC Principle 5.

FSC certification would limit opportunities to promote good forest management.  For example, clearcutting of low-quality hardwoods for chips in the Appalachian highlands is economically worthwhile and silviculturally desirable on acres that suffered from high grading early in the century.  This resulted in a situation where deformed and low-value species were left to occupy sites.  Clearcutting improves these forests by removing low quality trees, allowing economically valuable species to become established.  This would not occur under FSC certification.

Certification would increase income disparities between urban and rural areas.  In Washington, 1979 per-capita income in timber-dependent counties was 5% below the national average.  By 1997 the gap was 29%.  Researchers attribute this to timber harvest reductions on publicly owned lands and with regulatory constraints (CINTRAFOR 1998).  The harvest decline and regulatory environment is a proxy for FSC-style certification.   It is also is directly contrary to FSC principle 4 on community relations and worker’s rights:

“Forest management operations shall maintain or enhance the long-term social and economic well-being of forest workers and local communities.” (FSC 1999). 

Interestingly, FSC has never commented negatively on the dramatic forestry job losses in Washington and other western states during the last decade. 

These impacts hinge on a forest industry that continues to operate at existing levels of capacity.  In reality  rising costs from adoption of FSC-style certification would increase the comparative advantage of offshore producers.  This would result in a decline in US forest products processing capacity, and an erosion of the value of family forests. 

Literature Cited

AF&PA.  1999. 2000 Fifth Annual Progress Report, Sustainable Forest Initiative Program., 21 p.

American Tree Farm System.  2001.  Http://

Anonymous.  2001.  Environmentalists target retail stores to pressure industry., 3/22/01. 

Beam, Lynda. 1998.  Letter to the Forest Management Trust, 5/29/98.

Carlton, J.  How Home Depot and Activists Joined to Cut Logging Abuse.  Wall Street Journal, 9/26/00.

Caulfield, J.P. 1998.  The Forest Sector in a Period of Global Economic Growth and Volatility. Timberland Fiduciary Research, White Paper 98-1, May,  30 p.

CINTRAFOR. 1998. Disparity in timber rural vs. urban income in Washington State rising. CINTRAFOR Fact Sheet #36,  ( 3 pp.

Forest Stewardship Council. 2001.   Certification: Why we do it.

Forest Certification Standards for the Southeastern U.S.: Draft.  1999.  Forest Stewardship Council Southeastern Regional Forest Certification Standards Project, Gainesville, FL. 54 p. 

Forsyth, K. D. Haley, R. Kozak.  1999. Will consumers pay more for certified wood products?  Journal of Forestry, 97(2): 18-22.

Hagler, R. H.  1997.  The outlook for global timber supply 1995-2030.  In: Proceedings: Monitoring the Global Wood Fiber Equation, Oct. 6-7, 1997, Reston, VA.

Sedjo, R. A. 1999.  Private forestry and non-industrial forest landowners, their impact: nationally, environmentally, economically.  Presentation to: Congressional Staff Information Seminar, 10/22/99, Washington, D.C.

Sedjo, R. A., A. Goetzl and S. O. Moffat. 1998.  Sustainability of Temperate Forests.  Resources for the Future, Washington, D.C., 102 p.  

USDA Forest Service.  2000.  1997 Resources Planning Act Assessment: The United States Forest Resource Current Situation.