Sustainable Wood: Certifying Sustainable Forestry Management

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The world’s forests provide as much valuable shelter to us when left standing as when they’re cut down to build our homes. By absorbing and storing carbon dioxide (the principle greenhouse gas) and releasing oxygen they simultaneously work to counteract global warming and supply us with the air we need to survive.

Since the late 1950s, nearly one-fifth of the world’s forests have disappeared. In fact, every second, another acre of rain forest is intentionally destroyed by fire for agricultural purposes. As deforestation continues to accelerate, forests are unable to provide climate control, soil conservation, or wildlife habitats. As a result, the world’s forests now lose more carbon to the atmosphere than they absorb, fueling climate changes. Based on our current rate of deforestation, some predict that the rainforests will completely disappear by the end of the century.

So what can we do?

For many, the answer lies in certification. In theory, certified wood and wood products come with “chain of custody” documents proving that they originated from sustainably managed forests, thus offering a way to recognize and reward practitioners with higher prices or stronger demand. Certification also provides a means to address and monitor forestry issues.

Certification of forestry practices arose, in part, out of bitter confrontations in the late 1980s between environmentalists dedicated to protecting old growth forests and members of the timber industry, whose livelihoods depended on harvesting them. In August 1999 Arthur Blank, the president and CEO of Home Depot, brought this issue to center stage by promising to “eliminate from our stores wood from endangered species . . . and give preference to certified wood” by the end of 2002. Lowe’s and IKEA soon followed suit.

But shopping for a logo claiming that a product is harvested from sustainable wood doesn’t guarantee that you’ve made the most environmentally responsible choice. Different certifiers have different definitions of “green forestry;” some businesses have created their own logos without significantly changing their harvesting methods.

Shades of green

The Forest Stewardship Council is an independent, nonprofit organization that promotes responsible forestry. More than simply advising its members to “plant a tree for every one cut,” the FSC considers other environmental issues such as minimizing clear-cuts, eliminating pesticide use, and protecting rare and endangered species. The FSC also advocates fair labor practices for indigenous workers while striving to make its standards economically attractive to businesses. The Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have all endorsed the FSC’s standards.

If you love the look and feel of real wood but also want to save trees, you’ll need to wade through the certification choices, learn to conserve, and use your own common sense.

The FSC is not an inspecting agent–it accredits certification programs; two of the largest programs are the Rainforest Alliance’s SmartWood Program and Scientific Certification Systems (accredited programs can use the FSC’s logo). The FSC has developed two types of certification. Tree farmers receive FSC endorsement by following certain management practices. Manufacturers of wood products can receive “chain of custody” certification to indicate that their products were made from FSC-approved materials.

Critics of the FSC point out that the review process can take years, cost thousands of dollars, and offer no guarantee that the supplier will receive the stamp of approval. And because the FSC sets such a high bar, many companies don’t even try to qualify.

Another major–and competing–certifying organization is the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). The SFI calls for forestry and wood-product companies to adopt environmentally responsible methods through a system of principles, guidelines, and performance measures aimed at achieving “a much broader sense of sustainable forestry.”

Because the SFI is supported by the American Forest and Paper Industry, it has less credibility with environmental groups. Critics point out that the SFI does not have any criteria for protecting old growth, endangered species, or water quality, or minimizing the use of toxic chemicals. In the past, members have been allowed to maintain their approved status even when in violation of the SFI standards, as long as they can prove “continuous improvement.”

Perhaps the biggest shortcoming of each of the certifying bodies is that they are all voluntary. None has the authority to identify forests that ought to be left alone, or the ability to curb the world’s outsized appetite for wood.

Despite the proliferation of certification efforts, forests are still disappearing. Figures show that deforestation in the Amazon, an area that shelters 50 percent of the world’s animal and plant life, was the worst it had been in five years in 2000 because of illegal logging and fires. In some cases, certification has encouraged illegal logging. According to the WWF, approximately seven out of every ten trees are illegally cut or come from an uncontrolled forest. The World Bank reports that the rate of deforestation in Indonesia has doubled in the past decade; 4.2 million acres are lost each year.

Cutting close to home

Sustainable forestry is not a new practice. In 1941, the American Tree Farm System (ATFS) started showing private landowners the “new science” of forestry to help them realize the benefits of long-term, sustainable forestry management. Today, the system encompasses 61,000 tree farmers and nearly 30 million acres of nonindustrial private forestlands. Initiation into the Tree Farm system is free, provided the forests meet the program’s good forestry standards. Foresters trained by the system volunteer their time to certify tree farms through on-site inspections every five years.

The ATFS teaches its members how to harvest trees according to the principles of “selective forestry,” a system in which foresters select individual trees or small groups of trees, leaving others. Says Jimmy O’Connor, program coordinator for the ATFS, “Selective forestry has been proven to open crowded forests to assist wildlife, reduce wildfire danger, and accelerate the growth of remaining trees.”

In contrast to the rest of the world, selective forestry in North America appears to be working. The United States and Canada now grow twice as much hardwood as they harvest annually. North American forest cover has expanded by nearly 10 million acres over the past decade. According to the ATFS, “U.S. forests are equal to the amount of land covered by trees eighty years ago.” As a side benefit, tree farms help landowners maintain nonindustrialized acres of forestland rather than selling them to developers.

A worldwide problem

Even if wood were no longer needed, the forests would continue to disappear just to accommodate the world’s exploding population. The WWF estimates that two-thirds of forest destruction results not from lumber production but as a result of overpopulation.

More than 1 billion people live in developing countries where wood is a basic source of fuel or where wasteful tree removal efforts provide lands for crops and pastures. According to the Rainforest Alliance, “agriculture is the principle agent of ecosystem destruction and species loss.” Unlike forestry, where trees are removed but the land has a chance to regenerate, these areas are permanently deforested. Cash crops such as bananas, sugar, and coffee grow where tropical forests once thrived.

Conservation regulations will certainly help preserve our world’s resources; wood’s value as a basic commodity may actually discourage slash-and-burn farming. But it seems that even these measures will fall short as the population continues to increase.

As grim as this may all sound, we can’t be too critical of the certification system–or, for that matter, ourselves. Consumer awareness, nonprofit, and for-profit agencies have made significant strides in a relatively short time period. And smaller grassroots groups are finding new solutions to help address many of the symptoms created by an exploding population. Most important, the world is beginning to realize that its forests are not a limitless resource.

Rediscovered wood