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Industry Watch

IFSC standards may create questions in Canada.

By John Clarke
Copyright 1998. Contact publisher for permission to use.

The first real test of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) system for certifying sustainable logging practices in North America will, appropriately enough, take place in British Columbia. An application covering 850,000 hectares of the large coastal operations of Western Forest Products Ltd. (WFP) is now going through the hoops and a decision is expected some time next Year.

It will also be a test for the rival Canadian Standards Association (CSA) system, which is more widely supported by the Canadian industry. If FSC can gain broader acceptance, CSA may have a lot of difficulty making headway in Canada, even if the corporations here believe CSA methods are more reliable technically and professionally.

FSC has already certified a number of Operations in North America, including the J D Irving Ltd. forest holdings in New Brunswick, the Haliburton Forest & Wild Life Reserve Ltd. holdings northeast of Toronto and, more notably, some operations in the US southwest. But the WFP case will be much more significant because of BC's tough Forest Practices Code.

How successful the FSC certifications prove will have to await months of scrutiny. Auditing codes set by local groups for the FSC may be too stringent for economic forestry in the highly competitive Canadian industry.

Must Canadian companies stop logging in old-growth areas - immediately - under FSC rules? If so, how sustainable can Irving's operations be?

Although FSC, backed by the World Wildlife Fund, has been broadly accepted in Europe, particularly in powerhouse Germany, its standards have created difficulties in some areas. Belgium's natural forests were given a certificate a year ago but it is reported that Brussels is considering opting out of the system.

Interpreting general principles for local conditions and local rules is proving a lot harder than the FSC originators imagined. They have pushed ahead quickly with national and regional initiatives in 15 countries, including, regionally, the Maritimes and BC in Canada, though not yet, apparently, in Quebec. It has accredited certifiers around the world who will have to ensure local logging conforms with the 10 principles.

It's ahead of the CSA system, which, in the minds of many in the Canadian industry, has been dotting too many i's and crossing too many t's.

But the ultimate outcome of the game will depend on how well regional standards can be established and, more particularly, how well local producers can adapt to them if they have to.

That's an absolutely key question. Are local producers willing to change? Can they change and remain economically sound? Process is all-important here, which will make WFP's progress through the system instructive to watch.

The company's chief forester Bill Dumont says: "As the first forest company in BC to seek FSC certification, WFP is in a unique position.'The company's bid for independent verification of the quality of its forest management will help define the role of the FSC in Canada."

Regional standards are being developed out of a checklist based on the FSC general criteria. It has been going the rounds of forest communities, forestry specialists, labour organizations, government agencies and First Nations groups.

The auditing firm of SGS Forestry from Oxford, United Kingdom, will be working with WFP to qualify it for a certificate. As it tries to spread its wings across the Atlantic from Europe, setting standards that can be molded to local conditions is the FSC's biggest hurdle, as it was predicted to be.

It has been very clever politically in focusing its campaign on buyers groups, the big retailers through whom most imported wood is channelled to the end users. Its chain-of-custody technique has lumber yards over there on edge, forced to show, on paper, that the wood they're selling has the FSC stamp of approval.

Germany, with its huge economy, has few lumber resources of its own. So it's dependent on large import volumes, approved by environmentalists who are quite capable of mounting effective boycotts against German industrial output. Germany knows it was deliberately chosen as the most highly visible target.

The days are gone when loggers controlled everything about the way the forests were harvested. Whatever may be said about the tactics of the environmental movement, it has raised the Public's conscience level. Those Who retail the wood and those who use it really have no choice but to play the game with the most aggressive and most successful (so far) certifying organization - the FSC.

But can an organization with any pretensions to legitimacy have standards that can be compromised enough to vary all over the world? Is that what Wall standards or regulations or rules have come to mean? Will what satisfies the FSC in New Brunswick fit conditions in BC?

One of the principles FSC founded itself on is the preservation of natural forest, i.e. old growth. It says: "Primary forests, well-developed secondary forests and sites of major environmental, social or cultural significance shall be conserved. Such areas shall not he replaced by tree plantations or other land uses."

There's some movement away from clearcutting in parts of Canada. But the industry as a whole is not ready, technically or otherwise, to give it up completely. Will the FSC compromise? And if it does, how variable will its standards be?

Logging rules in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes are less stringent than those under BC's new Forest Practices Code. The code's been roundly attacked in the East as a political more than a professional document. It will be hard for FSC's qualifiers to sort their way through the maze of practices they'll be examining in Canada.

It will be equally difficult for the industry to adjust to new certification systems being demanded in Europe and increasingly in the US. There's growing sentiment for certification by both the FSC and CSA (whose standards have been developed in tandem with the International Standards Organization in Geneva, Switzerland). The more Canadian corporations can cover themselves, the harder it will be for the greens to campaign against them.

"European customers have made it clear FSC is the most credible system at present; in future they may come to accept other mechanisms," says Bill Dumont of Western Forest Products. Clearly the market is king.

WFP's experience will be critical to the process in Canada. It's just not quite clear yet what the process will be precisely.

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