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SPEECH
USDA Forest Service
Washington, D.C.

The National Forest Certification Study
Forest Service Associate Chief Sally Collins
Society of American Foresters, Annual Meeting
Portland, OR—October 2007

 

It’s a pleasure to be here. As you might know, the Forest Service has examined forest certification on five units in the National Forest System:

  • the National Forests in Florida;
  • the Lakeview Federal Stewardship Unit on the Fremont-Winema National Forest in Oregon;
  • the Mt. Hood National Forest in Oregon;
  • the Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania; and
  • the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in Wisconsin.

I would like to say a few words about our reasons for studying certification and what our study found.

 

Reasons for Exploring Certification

The global demand for wood is huge, and the United States is the largest market for wood in the world. Wood is one of the finest and most versatile materials known. It is more energy-efficient than steel and other construction materials, and it results in fewer greenhouse gases and other harmful emissions. Plus, wood is a renewable resource, as we all know. In a well-managed forest, the harvest of timber for wood products is entirely compatible with a variety of other uses, including water, wildlife, biodiversity, aesthetics, and recreational use.

 

Worldwide, the challenge has been to make sure that timber comes from sustainably managed forests. That’s where forest certification comes in. Certification identifies forestland that is managed according to well-recognized standards of sustainability.

 

Around the world, people have recognized the benefits, and certification has grown by leaps and bounds. From virtually zero in the early 1990s, certification has grown to cover much of the forestland in Western Europe and North America. A number of states, counties, and municipalities have also found certification to be beneficial, and about 14 million acres of state land are now certified. Such programs have been found to be useful in guiding forest policy and management and in improving communication with the public.

 

However, only 7 percent of the world’s forests are certified today. This means that many countries with forests facing threats from illegal logging, government corruption, or unsustainable forest practices are not being certified. A number of forest-product-consuming countries—including the United States—purchase products from forests that might not be managed sustainably.

 

Certification—an entirely voluntary market approach—can be a powerful tool in stemming the tide of these threats. The Forest Service has supported efforts in countries around the world to promote sustainable forest practices, from reduced-impact logging to increased law enforcement. Certification is one tool we have worked with partners to advance in countries like Brazil, Indonesia, Madagascar, and Mexico to help them address forest sustainability and reduce illegal logging. To be fully credible in encouraging other countries to consider forest certification, it seemed critical that we explore certification of the lands we ourselves manage, the national forests.

 

Study Objectives

It was in this spirit that we initiated this certification test two years ago. The Pinchot Institute for Conservation was the logical partner for this study. The Institute is an independent nonprofit research and education organization dedicated to investigating new approaches to forest conservation. It has carried out certification tests in a variety of settings, including on public, private, tribal, and university lands.

 

The Institute worked with accredited auditors to investigate management practices on the five study units I mentioned. The auditors used protocols developed by two leading forest certification systems—the Forest Stewardship Council and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. The study had three main objectives:

  • First, to see whether certification was consistent with our mission of “sustaining the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.”
  • Second, to see what benefits and costs might be involved in a certification program on national forest land.
  • Third, to help us decide whether to further pursue National Forest System certification.

 

The study did not result in certification of any national forest, but it did provide a foundation for further discussion.

 

Study Results

Results from the study generally reflect well on national forest management. The auditors commended the study units for meeting or exceeding many requirements. Notable strengths included:

  • a depth and range of expertise;
  • exceptional programs of planning, assessment, and monitoring;
  • the integration of complex direction and management considerations;
  • a remarkable degree of scientific and consultative review;
  • robust level of consultation with stakeholders, particularly with respect to culturally important sites; and
  • an excellent system for identifying threatened and endangered species and managing for their key habitat requirements across the landscape.

 

As is normal for these audits, the auditors did find some areas where Forest Service practices did not meet their standards. Some were minor and would not preclude certification. Major issues would require changes before certification could proceed. These included:

  • road maintenance backlogs;
  • emerging forest health, insect risk, and fire risk issues;
  • in one case, red-cockaded woodpecker recovery;
  • monitoring issues associated with nontimber forest products and terrestrial wildlife populations;
  • safety training issues associated with timber and stewardship contractors;
  • coordination with subsurface owners of mineral rights;
  • allocations for old growth under the Northwest Forest Plan;
  • operating under outdated land and resource management plans; and
  • the environmental effects of off-highway vehicles.

 

Most Forest Service employees who participated in the study reacted favorably. They typically found the audits to be broader and more comprehensive than internal management reviews. Employees also found that the audits explored a full range of issues affecting the sustainability of the national forests, and that the audits provided a good test of staff performance. They felt that certification could add to the public credibility of national forest management while aiding communication with stakeholders.

 

Clearly, the national forests have a much broader purpose than timber production alone, and certification of the National Forest System might be perceived as reinforcing a focus on timber management. However, what is being certified under the FSC and SFI systems is not timber management, but rather sustainable forestry practices. The whole suite of ecosystem services that flows from a certified landscape, such as clean water and biomass, could potentially be certified as well.

 

The study thus provided valuable insight into common challenges facing national forest managers. Although the Forest Service is well aware of such issues, certification would likely require some thoughtful and deliberate action on our part.

 

Future Steps

The Forest Service has not decided whether it will seek certification for the National Forest System. We already have the most comprehensive laws and regulations for forest management in the world, and the national forests and grasslands are already managed in a transparent public process. Certification would require the Forest Service to take a number of steps that might include adding new procedures to management systems that are already fairly process-heavy.

 

However, professional third-party assessments could be a valuable addition to our auditing procedures and quality control. They could also help the general public better understand and assess the policies and procedures used in managing the National Forest System. Again, we have long encouraged the adoption of forest certification by private landowners and other countries, and adopting certification for the National Forest System would set a strong example.

 

Given the fact that less than 5 percent of the nation’s timber supply comes from the national forests, one might also ask this: Why bother with the costs of certification? There is a twofold response to this:

  • First, it is generally small community enterprises that utilize products from national forests, providing jobs in rural areas.
  • Second, these small enterprises are often in the West, where the timber supply is generally limited to the national forests.

Should the access that these enterprises and communities have to emerging certified markets be limited?

 

So we have some tradeoffs to weigh as we contemplate whether or not to adopt certification. Our next concrete step will be to hold listening sessions with interested parties in the coming months to promote a broader and deeper dialogue on the certification of federal lands. We invite you to participate. Thank you.

 

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US Forest Service
Last modified March 29, 2013
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