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Forest Certification and the National Forest System 1
Sally J. Collins, Denise Ingram, and Hutch Brown

Abstract. Forest certification harnesses global market mechanisms to promote sustainable forest management worldwide. Through the Pinchot Institute for Conservation, the Forest Service pilot-tested certification on several national forests, then weighed the tradeoffs of adopting certification for the entire National Forest System. Certification would add more procedures to a system already burdened with heavy process. Community enterprises that depend on wood from national forest land, however, would benefit from access to markets for certified wood products, and adopting certification would set a powerful example for private forest landowners and other countries.

Wood is one of the finest and most versatile materials known. More energy-efficient than steel and other alternatives, wood use results in fewer greenhouse gases and other harmful emissions (Petersen and Solberg 2003). Moreover, wood is renewable and its use is compatible with management of forests for a variety of ecosystem services—but only if it originates in forests that are sustainably managed.

And there’s the rub. In the 1990s, there was a worldwide net loss of forestland equivalent to the area of Italy and France combined (FAO 2005). Most of the loss was due to land use conversion to agriculture, but global markets for wood also contributed through unsustainable (and often illegal) logging. How do we know whether the wood we use is coming from sustainably managed forests?

That’s where certification comes in. Certification identifies forestland that is managed according to well-recognized standards of sustainability. Products that originate from certified forests can be labeled for sale, giving buyers confidence that their purchases are environmentally responsible. Forest landowners benefit in turn from green-labeling market opportunities, and other forest stakeholders can also benefit: Under some certification schemes, forest users and forest-dependent communities have a seat at the table in assessing the quality of forest management, where formerly they might have felt left out.

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 private timberland in Western Europe and North America. However, only 7 percent of the world’s forests are certified (Davis 2007), and many countries with forests that are not certified face threats from illegal logging, government corruption, or unsustainable forestry practices. A number of forest-product-consuming countries—including the United States—purchase products from overseas forests that might not be managed sustainably.


Certification—an entirely voluntary market approach—can be a powerful tool in meeting such threats. The Forest Service has supported efforts in countries around the world to promote sustainable forestry practices, from reduced-impact logging to increased law enforcement. Certification has been introduced in such countries as Brazil, Indonesia, Madagascar, and Mexico to help sustain forests and reduce illegal logging. In 1997, to be fully credible in encouraging other countries to adopt forest certification, the Forest Service began exploring the possibility of forest certification for the lands it manages, the National Forest System.

In fact, national forest management might benefit from forest certification. A number of states, counties, and municipalities have found it to be useful, and about 14 million acres of state land in the United States are now certified. Certification programs have helped guide forest policy and management and improve communication with the public. Quite apart from global forestry considerations, certification for the National Forest System might be a good idea.

To test its potential, the Forest Service asked the Pinchot Institute for Conservation to explore the application of certification systems on national forest land. The Institute worked with accredited auditors to investigate management practices on five units in the National Forest System using protocols developed by two leading forest certification systems—the Forest Stewardship Council and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. The protocols reflect how well landowners meet their own management standards in addition to standards set by each system.

Completed in 2007, the assessments showed that all five study units met or exceeded most of the certification requirements under the two systems. The assessments also provided valuable insight into common challenges facing national forest managers, such as unmanaged off-highway vehicle use, road maintenance backlogs, and the need for more active forest management to minimize insect and disease problems and reduce hazardous fuels. Although the Forest Service is well aware of such issues, forest certification would likely require some thoughtful and deliberate management actions, some perhaps at the national level.

The Forest Service is carefully weighing the tradeoffs before making a decision. The United States already has 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 Forest Service 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. The small community enterprises that depend on material from national forests, especially in the West, would benefit from access to emerging markets for certified forest products. In addition, adopting certification for the National Forest System would set a powerful example for private landowners and other countries.


The Forest Service is evaluating such considerations in deciding whether to adopt certification. The next step will be listening sessions with interested parties to promote a broader and deeper dialogue on the certification of federal lands. Whatever the agency’s ultimate decision, forest certification is here to stay. Certification enjoys strong support from a range of stakeholders, including consumer groups, wood producers and retailers, and governments around the world. It holds promise for promoting sustainable forest management and building green markets on a global scale, with benefits for generations to come.



Conservationists have long understood the connection between forests and water. “For when the earth was covered with the forest,” wrote George Perkins Marsh (1864), “perennial springs gushed from the foot of every hill, brooks flowed down the bed of every valley.” Spongy forest soils soak up rain, recharging aquifers and releasing high-quality water for downstream use. They also keep sediments and nutrients from impairing water quality in lakes and streams. Fifty-three percent of the water supply in the contiguous United States originates on forestland, even though forests cover just 29 percent of the surface area (Brown and others 2005; U.S. Forest Service 2007). Gifford Pinchot, who helped found American forestry at the turn of the 20th century, put it this way: “The relationship between forests and rivers is like father and son. No father, no son.”


The Forest Service has an obligation to manage the national forests and grasslands for water, among other things. The Organic Administrative Act of 1897 made “securing favorable conditions of water flows” one of the purposes of the forest reserves, forerunners of the national forests. In the contiguous United States, 18 percent of the water supply originates on the National Forest System; in the 11 contiguous States of the West, it is 51 percent (Brown and others. 2005; U.S. Forest Service 2007). The National Forest System provides drinking water to about 3,400 municipalities, slaking the thirst of some 60 million Americans (Sedell and others 2000). Public and private forestlands combined furnish water supplies for more than 138 million Americans. One of the Forest Service’s highest purposes is to help sustain the health of the watersheds that supply so much of the Nation’s drinking water.

Most watersheds on national forest land are healthy, but that has not always been the case. National forests in the East were largely assembled in the 1920s-50s from hard-scrabble farms with few trees, depleted soils, and deep scars from erosion. No longer checked by forests, storms sent water rushing downhill, swelling rivers and causing epic floods, such as the 1936 deluge that covered Pittsburgh in 46 feet of water, the worst flood in the city’s history. Under careful management, Federal lands in the East slowly recovered, and now dense forests regulate downstream flows while supplying eastern cities with water. From Vermont to Florida, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, Federal forestry has played a key role in restoring healthy, functioning watersheds.

In the West, past practices have also degraded some watersheds, and the Forest Service is working to restore them. An example comes from California’s Sierra Nevada, where channelized streams on the Plumas National Forest have worn gullies into floodplains, drying out the surrounding meadows, raising downstream temperatures, and flushing downstream habitats with sediment. Using a “pond-and-plug” technique, national forest managers have elevated streams to their original meandering floodplains and raised water tables. Storms no longer send floods ripping down gullies, but rather spread streams across their entire floodplains, allowing the original meadow vegetation to return. The meadows again act like sponges that soak up snows and rains and gradually release the flows in summer, when the water is needed downstream. Through such techniques, land managers can restore the hydrological functions of forests and meadows—functions that are critical for controlling floods, storing water, and sustaining downstream habitats for fish and wildlife.


Restoring Water Quality

Decades after the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, water quality remains a concern. In 2000, 39 percent of the rivers and 45 percent of the lakes tested nationwide were found to be impaired (EPA 2006). Although most waters on national forest land are clean and healthy, some are not. The top five reasons for water quality impairment on the national forests are, in descending order of importance, high temperatures, excessive sediment loads, habitat modification, excessive mercury content, and excessive metal loads.

Under the Clean Water Act, a stream or lake listed as impaired requires a costly 2-year study to establish target standards and a restoration plan. The resulting target is known as a TMDL, or “total maximum daily load.” By one estimate, all the TMDL studies needed for impaired waters on the National Forest System would cost more than $400 million—funds that might better be used for actual remediation. Based on decades of research and management experience, the Forest Service has best management practices for restoring watersheds without the need for costly, time-consuming studies. Fortunately, the Clean Water Act has a classification known as “category 4b” for streams where “existing control measures,” such as best management practices, are likely to restore an impaired stream or lake. In these cases, the Clean Water Act does not require a TMDL, creating opportunities for streamlining water quality improvements.

In 2007, the Forest Service signed a memorandum of agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to explore such streamlining opportunities. The agency is now working with various States, using EPA funds, to pilot-test imaginative ways of repairing watersheds based on streamlined TMDL studies or no TMDLs at all. For example, Idaho found that Bear Valley Creek on the Boise National Forest has excessive sediment loads. In response, the Forest Service is restoring streambanks, eliminating nearby grazing, and remediating old mine sites to reduce sediment loads, activities that collectively qualify Bear Valley Creek for a category 4b classification. As such pilot projects proceed, the Forest Service is developing tools for streamlining processes under the Clean Water Act in ways that might ultimately benefit State, private, and other landowners as well.

Water Quality Markets

Too often, the delivery of clean water to downstream users is simply taken for granted, despite the costs of keeping upstream watersheds forested and healthy. Cities such as New York are beginning to recognize that paying upstream landowners to maintain forests can be more cost-effective than constructing costly water treatment facilities (Daily and Ellison 2002). Downstream water quality also depends on keeping nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus out of local streams. Forestry can help protect municipal water supplies and restore estuaries degraded by nutrient runoff, such as the Chesapeake Bay.


Private forest landowners own 57 percent of America’s forests. Given the role that forests play in water supply and purification, the importance of maintaining intact private forestlands will only grow. However, private landowners face rising pressures to convert their lands to urban uses; more than 11 percent of the Nation’s private forestland—about 44.2 million acres, an area the size of New England—is likely to see increases in housing density from 1997 to 2030 (Stein and others 2005).

Working with partners, the Forest Service can help keep private forestlands intact, partly by augmenting their income streams. The agency is promoting ways of remunerating private forest landowners for delivering a key ecosystem service—water purification. In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, for example, the Forest Service is working with partners to develop the concept of a Bay Bank. The Bank would be a central clearinghouse for buyers and sellers of water quality credits in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. For example, by planting a riparian forest, a landowner could keep nutrient-laden runoff from reaching a river. A facility that generates phosphorus or nitrogen could install technology to do the same, but it might be cheaper for the landowner to plant a forest. If so, then the forest landowner could sell a water quality credit to the facility through the Bank. The overarching goal would be to meet regional targets for limiting nutrients in the Chesapeake Bay, thereby helping the Bay to recover. In the process, forest landowners would be paid for helping to clean up the Bay.

Finding Common Ground

Mark Twain once quipped that whiskey was for drinking and water for fighting over, based on his experience of a West where water was already in short supply. Twain could have been commenting on California, where 19th-century cattle barons struggled for control over water rights. Since then, Californians have famously fought each other over water in the Klamath, Owens, and Sacramento Rivers, just as Coloradans have fought each other over water in the South Platte River. Water wars have extended across State lines, with States battling each other over water rights to rivers such as the Truckee (California and Nevada) and the Republican (Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska). The most famous example, the Colorado River, is now oversubscribed; the Colorado River Compact, signed by seven States in the 1920s, was based on a period of above-average rainfall, and withdrawal rates have been “too high for sustainable extraction” (CSG 2008). In the South, Georgia has tried to redraw its border with Tennessee so it could tap the Tennessee River; and Alabama, Florida, and Georgia have seen 18 years of bitter court battles over water sources that cross State lines, with the Federal Government struggling, so far in vain, to broker a water-sharing agreement.

The Forest Service has also seen fights over water, especially in the West. Each State has primary authority for water allocation, but the Federal Government retains regulatory authority over water on Federal lands. In fact, Congress has passed more than 30 laws governing the management of water resources on national forest land. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, for example, authorizes the Forest Service to regulate water use to “minimize damage to scenic and aesthetic values and fish and wildlife habitat and otherwise protect the environment.” In effect, Federal and State authorities share jurisdiction over waters on the National Forest System, resulting in confusion and bitter legal fights.

In 2007, after 15 years of often contentious negotiations, the Forest Service signed a compact with the State of Montana to address water rights on national forest land. The compact reserves water rights for Forest Service administrative uses and for instream flows for the wild and scenic South Fork Flathead River as well as 77 other streams. According to a spokesman for the State, the compact balances the interests of the agricultural community against those of Montana’s many recreational users (Backus 2007). However, neither side got everything it wanted; for example, the compact does not protect instream flows for about 750 streams on national forest land, although it does set up a process for negotiating future protections.

Nevertheless, it is a good first step away from years of rancor and litigation, costing each side millions of dollars for no gain. “This is an important model that we hope other States will embrace,” declared Under Secretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and the Environment Mark Rey (Backus 2007). “People will hold up Montana as a good example of how these disputes should be resolved in the future.”

A Watershed of Opportunities

The lesson of the Hohokam is clear: Rising demographic pressure on a declining water source can doom a civilization—unless it is prepared to adjust. The Hohokam lacked modern technology, yet their plight pales by comparison to the climatic and demographic challenges facing the world today. Their fate remains a warning.

Forests can help secure water supplies, even in an era of climate change—so long as people are ready to work across jurisdictions to protect and restore forested watersheds. No single landowner or land manager can do it alone. Fortunately, people are coming together across the Nation to find better ways of managing their water resources. The Forest Service is helping by facilitating partnerships, conducting research, providing technical assistance, and addressing the challenge of climate change. It is up to all of us in forestry, working together across borders and boundaries, to consolidate and continue the gains made, for the benefit of generations to come.


We gratefully acknowledge the thoughtful comments and suggestions received in preparing this article, including from Bill Lange, Director of Policy Analysis, U.S. Forest Service, Washington, DC; and Douglas MacCleery, Senior Policy Analyst, Forest Management, U.S. Forest Service, Washington, DC; and V. Alaric Sample, President of the Pinchot Institute for Conservation, Washington, DC.

End Notes


1This article appeared in The Pinchot Letter 13(1)[Winter 2008]: 1, 3. Sally Collins, the former Associate Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, is USDA’s Director of Ecosystem Services and Markets, Washington, DC; Denise Ingram and Hutch Brown are Forest Service policy analysts in Washington, DC.


Davis, Crystal. 2007. January 2007 monthly update: Forest certification and the path to sustainable forest management. World Resources Institute. http://earthtrends.wri.org/updates/node/156

FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization). 2005. Global forest resources assessment 2005. FAO Forestry Paper 147. Rome, Italy: FAO.

Petersen, Ann Kristin; Solberg, Birger. 2003. Environmental and economic impacts of substitution between wood products and alternative materials: A review of micro-level analyses from Norway and Sweden. Department of Forest Sciences, Agricultural University of Norway.


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Last modified March 29, 2013

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