Verifying Forest Sustainability

More customers and policymakers seek assurances that the forest-derived fuel or feedstock they purchase is harvested in a sustainable manner.
By Charles A. Levesque and Eric W. Kingsley | October 08, 2012

Increased talk about the use of woody biomass for energy in the U.S. has many people wondering how best to assure that the fuel and feedstock used by wood energy firms is harvested sustainably. The forest products industry—sawmills and pulp mills, in particular—has been down this road for more than 15 years and many have turned to the major forest certification systems available in the U.S., namely the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, the Forest Stewardship Council and the American Tree Farm System. These systems may or may not be the best way to demonstrate the sustainability of feedstock harvesting for the woody biomass energy sector. In the end, your customers’ needs and your company values should drive what you do about forest sustainability.

The Forest Certification Systems

SFI, FSC and ATFS are private, non-governmental programs, all of which are part of one of two major forest certification systems in the world: the Forest Stewardship Council and Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification. In the U.S., the FSC system is part of the Forest Stewardship Council international program, whereas SFI and ATFS are part of PEFC.

Collectively, the three certification systems currently have 92 million acres certified in the U.S. Some of those acres are certified to both SFI and FSC and are therefore double counted, and further confusing, FSC does not allow for reciprocity with SFI or ATFS, and vice versa.  Importantly, SFI and ATFS do allow reciprocity between their systems because they are both part of PEFC.  SFI is for larger ownerships, over 20,000 acres, while ATFS is for ownerships smaller than 20,000 acres.  Most tree farms are much smaller and average just over 200 acres.

So what do these systems do?  In a nutshell, each of the FSC, SFI and ATFS systems has a standard— a series of detailed requirements for how a forest property must be managed—under which a landowner must manage in order to become certified.  An outside accredited entity sends an auditor to conduct a third-part audit to determine conformance with the many detailed criteria in the standard. 

The audit will be conducted by an entity that has no direct affiliation with the company or landowner being audited, ensuring that there are no conflicts of interest.  If landowners pass the initial and subsequent annual audits, they can make claims about products relative to their certification program.  They can also label their product with the logo of the program, if they get a companion certification to the system’s chain of custody. A CoC system essentially assures that a product indeed came from a certified forest when a landowner makes that claim.

A Bit of History

Concerns over rainforest destruction lead to the Statement of Forest Principles at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The forest principles laid out the definition of a sustainably managed forest, which was further refined through the Montreal Process.  Ultimately, this led to the formation of the FSC in 1993 by a group of people from environmental organizations, social sciences and the forest industry. 

The SFI was created one year later by the American Forest and Paper Association, the national trade group of the U.S. forest products industry.  Originally a self-verification system, SFI changed into a full third-party system by the late 1990s. SFI only covers the U.S. and Canada, but similar country-based forest certification systems from around the world became aligned under another international umbrella system called PEFC. SFI and ATFS had to pass the requirements of PEFC to be recognized as part of that system; SFI in 2005 and ATFS in 2008. Notably, ATFS was created for U.S. landowners in the 1940s and only changed to a third-party certification system within the past 10 years.

Energy Plants and Sustainability

Energy producing plants that use wood as feedstock, whether they are producing electricity, heat, pellets or biofuel, generally have one thing in common:  they do not own the forestland from which their feedstock timber is harvested. As a result, they tend to have little direct control over where and how their feedstock is produced in the woods. Some sawmills and pulp mills are similar in that regard, but even those that own forestland in large acreages do not own enough to rely solely on their own land for feedstock.

SFI, FSC and ATFS help address the challenge of accountability when sourcing feedstock from forests owned by outside parties. In each case, certified entities are allowed to make public claims about sustainability, based on the premise that being certified to the rigorous third-party audited standard is an indication that they are managing in a sustainable way. If a wood-using energy plant were able to obtain the vast majority of its wood supply from certified forest land, it could use a CoC system to claim that its wood supply comes from sustainably harvested forests. This, however, is where the rub is. Most places in the U.S. simply do not have enough certified acreage to allow a manufacturing plant to make this claim, and the relatively low-value landowners receive from harvesting wood for energy purposes—as opposed to lumber, etc.—means that biomass users have limited opportunity to incentivize new certified acreage. Exceptions might include parts of Maine and Wisconsin, where substantial acreage is already certified to one or more of the systems. But if you aren’t located in Maine and Wisconsin or some other pocket of certified forest, what do you do? 

SFI has an option called fiber sourcing certification, which uses a different standard than the regular land management SFI standard. Fiber sourcing certifies the entire wood procurement system of the facility.  It is a less rigorous system, but it reaches out to all the forest landowners who provide woody feedstock. 

Another Approach: Design Your Own System

In some cases, it might not be feasible or practical to use SFI, FSC or ATFS to demonstrate your commitment to forest sustainability, especially if your customers are not demanding it. In this case, there are ways to design your own system. One approach Innovative Natural Resource Solutions has used with clients is developing a tracking system for wood sources. With this approach, it can be useful to show information about where your wood comes from, the amount that comes from certified forests, or the amount that was harvested with a licensed or certified forester and/or logger involved.  There are many other ways to add additional components to a self-designed system. In the end, the system should do what you and your customers need it to do.

Authors: Charles A. Levesque
President, Innovative Natural Resource Solutions LLC
[email protected]
Eric W. Kingsley
Vice president, Innovative Natural Resource Solutions LLC
[email protected]


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