Private timber companies have been getting “green” certifications for the past decade to boost sales among consumers who want to be assured that forests are not harmed by producing the lumber they buy.
Now the U.S. Forest Service, battered by court battles over balancing logging against fish and wildlife habitat, is looking into it.
A portion of the Fremont National Forest in southern Oregon and the Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania will be the first of several national forests to undergo an audit under the standards of two major systems: the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, developed by the U.S. timber industry, and the Forest Stewardship Council, an international group based in Germany that grew out of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The national forest audit will also include Mount Hood and Siuslaw in Oregon, Medicine Bow in Wyoming, Chequamegon-Nicolet in Wisconsin and all national forests in Florida.
The Forest Service said it is following a global trend to have third parties declare forest management as sustainable, and needs the public’s confidence as it faces new challenges, such as invasive species, global warming and combating unauthorized off-highway vehicle trails. Wanting to go slowly, it will just go through the audit process, and won’t immediately seek final certification.
“Here we are providing advice to other countries and not even doing it on our own land,” said Sally Collins, associate chief of the Forest Service, from Washington, D.C. “It made us think we ought to at least test this, because it’s becoming an international language and we ought to be able to show we manage our forests sustainably.”
The sustainability standards address issues such as making sure new trees are growing to replace those that are cut, controlling erosion and protecting fish and wildlife habitat and clean water. The Forest Stewardship Council standards go further to assure protection of social issues, such as sacred tribal sites; and economic considerations, such as maintaining long-term jobs, in addition to the environment.
Loggers favor, activists wary
The Collins Companies (no relation to Sally Collins), the first timber company in North America to win FSC certification, greened up its act to gain a marketing advantage, and hopes bringing in a third party to validate the national forests will break the gridlock that has crippled timber production from federal lands and allowed wildfires on national forests to damage private timber.
“I’m a fourth generation lumberman,” said Wade Mosby, senior vice president of the Collins Companies, which has headquarters in Portland. “What my dad and grandfather did is not accepted practice today. There is a balance. That pendulum needs to swing back. It needs to be done in a sustainable way, not a political manner. Let the professionals decide. That’s what this does.”
Environmental groups are wary, wondering whether standards for industrial forests can be translated to public lands where fish and wildlife habitat, clean water and recreation are supposed to get equal treatment, and whether this is laying the groundwork to toss out the environmental laws that have given them so many court victories.
“We are very skeptical this is going to be an adequate replacement,” said Mike Anderson, an analyst for The Wilderness Society. “Lots of people have said the Forest Service needs to rebuild trust with the public. That’s certainly true. But you know, I just don’t know whether certification has really improved public acceptance of private land logging practices.”
First audit in November
Robert Hrubes, senior vice president of Scientific Certification Systems, in Emeryville, Calif., will visit the Fremont National Forest in November with a team that will start looking at the Lakeview Cooperative Sustained Yield Unit, nearly 500,000 acres devoted to producing timber for local mills. They will look at paperwork, forest plans, and the forest itself to see if it is sustainable environmentally, socially and economically.
“Tens of millions of acres of state forest lands around the country have already undergone the process,” he said. “If it makes sense for a state department of natural resources to engage in certification, I don’t see why it wouldn’t make sense for managers of federal lands.”
Back in the late 1980s, when national forests were producing 12 billion board feet a year — a quarter of national lumber consumption — the Lakeview area had five mills working off the unit, which was turning out about 150 million board feet a year.
Collins’ Fremont Mill is the only one left, working mostly off timber grown on Collins’ own lands. Mosby said they have only been able to buy 5 million board feet a year off the unit in recent years, and much of that was killed by fire or insects, making it less valuable. He figures it could sustainably produce as much as 80 million board feet, 20 million board feet more than the Fremont Mill now uses. The audit will see if he is right.
Mosby said Collins got into certification after seeing a Danish lumber retailer shut down by protests over clear cutting tropical hardwood forests, and enjoyed a market advantage in the early going. That has mostly evaporated as the industry has followed suit, most of them with the less stringent SFI standard. But it is likely to become more of a factor as sustainability building standards — already common in commercial construction — are adopted in residential construction.
“It’s just like organic food,” said Mosby. “There is a certain segment that will pay extra to put organic or stuff with no pesticides in their body.”
Catherine Mater is a forest engineering consultant in Corvallis and a senior fellow with the Pinchot Institute, which advises the Forest Service on forest management issues. She has been pressing the Forest Service to consider certification since 1997, when state forestry departments began adopting it. She has seen certification defuse confrontations on state lands, and hopes to see that happen on the national forests.
“It has fundamentally changed the fabric of the industry,” said Mater. “It did so without the force of legislation or regulation behind it. It was a market-driven approach, a voluntary approach.”