March-April, 2002






Certification of Timber Lands and Timber Products

By Tim Buckley

Sustainable forest management, in its various forms, began long before it was a rallying cry for international environmental organizations. The American Forest Foundation, for example, began the Tree Farm Program in 1945. The program has certified 25 million acres in the US, owned by about 70,000 non-industrial landowners - mostly mom and pop operations. Outside the US, alarm bells started ringing in the 1980s about worldwide forest resources being depleted more rapidly than they could be replaced. 

By 1992, the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization set out to adopt and urge international compliance with sustainable forestry management practices. Out of the UN's "Agenda 21" grew an urgency to define, then develop criteria for certifying the origin of harvested logs and whether or not they had come from sustainably managed forests. Based on the UN's definition, the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) was among the first to develop a sustainable forestry certification program, in 1992. 

Then came a host of others, including the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), which are currently the two major players in the US. Backed by large environmental organizations, the FSC was the first to develop a comprehensive program to track timber from its point of origin to its end user - now called the "chain of custody." SFI, backed initially by big timber industry interests, has been steadily closing the distance between itself and FSC. 

The chain of custody issue was among the major differences between them. Others still in contention include the size of clearcuts, use of pesticides and planting of genetically altered trees. Big Creek Lumber Company, in Davenport, California, was an early subscriber to FSC's brand of sustainability. The company's forests were certified in 1996; its mill operation and its retail outlets were certified shortly after. 

"We were already known for good forestry practices," says Janet Webb, a third-generation member of the McCrary family business. "Big Creek is in the middle of a political fishbowl," adds Webb, who is the company's wholesale manager. "There are lots of people around us in the Santa Cruz Mountains who don't want any wood cut whatsoever. Getting certified by FSC sends a message that what we're doing is sustainable," she says. "The major thing we had to improve was the documentation of our on-the-ground practices," said Webb. "Our woody debris retention, wildlife habitat protection, selective harvesting methods, forest management without herbicides, erosion control and road construction all met their approval. We just had to document how to do it and keep better records of what we did." 

Big Creek chose to go with FSC for two main reasons: in 1995, it was the only comprehensive program that attempted to bring a variety of different stake holders to agreement on what constituted a well managed forest, and offered independent third party verification of management practices. They were also acquainted with Robert Hrubys from the University of California at Berkeley, who was a strong advocate of independent third-party forest certification. 

Hrubys has since become senior vicepresident of Scientific Certification Systems, one of two companies that contracts with FSC to do the certification audits and reviews. After receiving certification on their 9000 acres, Big Creek began getting pressure to bring their certified wood to market. That meant having their mill and five retail outlets certified for chain of custody - implementing a marking, sorting and tracking system to keep non-certified wood out of the mix. 

Tagging and bar coding individual logs wasn't as tough as the shuffling of finished product in their yards, Webb admits. "At the mill, we'll run three weeks of only certified lumber, then a week of non-certified logs from some of our other suppliers." The cleaning operation between the two, Webb says, does cause some loss of time and productivity. 

In large part, the demand for certified wood products has come from the prolonged efforts of retail giant Home Depot. "It's part of the culture of our company to 'do the right thing,'" says Ron Jarvis, one of the Atlanta-based company's guiding hands on certification and a merchandising Vice- President. From 1993 until 2000, there was very little consumer demand for certified wood products, Jarvis said. "Even now the customer is not often looking for certified lumber or finished goods," he continues. 

"Many would be interested if they were educated about them, but then only if the price is competitive." Home Depot began buying finished goods - like shelving - from Collins Pine, a founding member of FSC and a pioneering company in the vertical integration of certified forest products, as early as 1993. Jarvis says that initial attempts to feature certified products didn't work very well, and those products gathered dust in stores. "In 2000, we stopped buying merely what was offered to us from vendors," says Jarvis. "We began telling them what types of certified products Home Depot would like to buy." 

Today, Home Depot has a wide range of dimensional lumber, plywood and manufactured products with the FSC logo, indicating a certified chain of custody. "The sales volume of certified products increased by more than 300 percent since tracking began last year," Jarvis says, and adds that the trend is likely to continue.  

At the same time, the company began educating its sales staff and consumers about Home Depot's philosophy and the value of certified wood products. "We even found healthy competition between our eight divisions, around who could sell the most certified product," says Jarvis. 

He adds, though, that the selection of certified products is better on the West Coast, where the supply from certified forests is greater. Home Depot's early endorsement of FSC over other certification organizations was largely because FSC was the first with an international program. Because the company buys so much volume from overseas, Home Depot found it important that a chain of custody program was in place for those countries. "Most of the certified product we sell in our East Coast stores is from New Zealand, South America, and the western US," Jarvis says. 

But Home Depot doesn't have an exclusive agreement with FSC and Jarvis says that his company is impressed with the improvement of other schemes, like that of CSA and SFI. "CSA has some very strong points," Jarvis says, and it appears that they and others are close to having a reciprocal certification scheme with chain of custody provisions and a seamless integration internationally. "Although today we have not endorsed these other systems, we are greatly encouraged by the total movement towards sustainable forestry," Jarvis says. 

While some believe that competition between FSC and SFI in the US is good, others have been chanting for consolidation around a single definition of "sustainable forest management" and a single system of certification. At present, FSC has certified 8.3 million acres in the US and almost 62 million acres globally, according to Ken Cousins, a forestry research fellow at FSC. As of August of last year, SFI was quickly closing ground, and had certified 33 million acres in the US and Canada. 

Cousins complemented SFI for having "come a long way" since being started by the American Forest & Paper Association, but added that he doubted whether the SFI and FSC systems would ever become totally compatible. The Washington DC-based Meridian Institute was commissioned last year to assess the similarities and differences between SFI and FSC. 

The study was funded equally by FSC, SFI and Home Depot, and was conducted by a panel of forestry experts selected through consensus by the study partners. A detailed report is available on their website ( and, based on reports from both camps, Cousins' prediction may be accurate. "The two have philosophical differences due to their program origins and program objectives," said Will Hamilton, in a recent AFRC newsletter column. 

He added that the FSC and SFI models also differ in governance structures, the degree of public involvement required, the roles of the certifying bodies, how accreditation is done. The National Wildlife Federation said in its official press release: "We're pleased that the report's findings confirm that the FSC is clearly the higher standard." 

The release went on to say that "the discrepancies fell in the areas of standard setting; performance requirements on sensitive issues such as clear cutting rates, use of chemicals, endangered species protection or forest biodiversity; public disclosure of results; frequency of inspections; and, most importantly, independent verification of results in the forest." 

Meanwhile, back at Big Creek Lumber Company, Janet Webb hopes that the debate over what the certification criteria should be for their region will soon be over. But she's not holding her breath. "Because of the many interests involved with FSC, there can be a lot of internal wrangling between the political and scientific sides. 

As a result, the criteria for certification in our region continues to be a moving target," says Webb. "We just passed our first five-year review and were recertified, but some of the things they're now looking at weren't even an issue at the beginning," she added. "FSC's structure and process allows for change and with this comes some uncertainty."


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