How to Have Your Wood and Your Forest Too: According to a New Kind of Certifier, You Can Help Conserve Forests with Your Purchase Dollars

By Boucher, Norman | National Wildlife, August-September 1997 | Go to article overview

How to Have Your Wood and Your Forest Too: According to a New Kind of Certifier, You Can Help Conserve Forests with Your Purchase Dollars


Boucher, Norman, National Wildlife


Five years ago, Chip Chapman didn't give much thought to creatures like the marbled salamander. For almost two decades, Chapman has been a forester in central New England, with small-landowner clients trying to earn money from their woodlots. The usual way of doing that in the eastern United States has been simple: Whether your forest covers 50 acres or 5 million, hire a logging crew to cut down all the big, commercially valuable species of trees.

That practice, known as "high-grading," has been the quickest way to turn trees into cash. It has also been, Chapman and others now say, a biological disaster. Removing the largest and healthiest trees from a forest robs it of its future--a process Chapman describes as "natural selection backwards." Cut- ting down the big oaks on a piece of land, for example, means eliminating its best acorn producers. Fewer acorns mean fewer deer and other mammals that depend on the nuts for food. Fewer big trees mean fewer nesting sites for large birds. Repeatedly high-grading a forest eventually reduces even its com- mercial value; the inferior trees left standing tend to produce inferior young trees.

In recent decades, many foresters in the East, including Chapman, have shifted to sustained-yield forestry. In this approach, a forester uses core samples from typical trees in a client's forest to calculate their recent rate of growth and translate it into the amount of lumber that could be sustainably removed. The emphasis is entirely on growth rate; salamanders still don't mat- ter.

Then Chapman discovered a new approach to forestry involving third-party certification, based on the premise that some consumers will pay a little more for products made from wood that originated in a forest managed for biological diversity as well as for harvest.

He began to leave buffer zones around trees where hawks nest and to instruct loggers to stay away from bogs and even from vernal pools--those temporary puddles that are the only breeding sites of such vanishing species as the marbled salamander. "Now," says Chapman, "I put a 'W' on any tree with a rap- tor nest or a woodpecker cavity. And I recommend cutting only 70 percent of a forest's growth. This allows me to leave some important and varied habitat standing." Says silviculturist Robert Seymour of the University of Maine, "I've come to believe that forest certification is probably the very best way to promote and reward excellence in forestry."

In the past few years, five forest certifiers have become established worldwide, two in the United Kingdom, one in the Netherlands, and two in the United States. All five have been accredited by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an international nonprofit group formed in 1993 to establish and uphold forest-certification standards. Eric Palola, a Vermont-based National Wildlife Federation resource economist, credits the FSC with giving forest certifica- tion "the organizational structure to make it viable in the international marketplace."

The FSC considers not only efficient use of logged trees and preservation of biological diversity, but social concerns such as protection of land rights of indigenous peoples. "Certification goes beyond the traditional growth vs. removal' focus to include ecological and community factors that are essential to healthy forests," says Palola. "Is the landowner operating in the black? Do they pay taxes on time? Are they a good neighbor? Are they fair to their workers?"

Once a forest is certified, its owner can place a "well-managed" label on all wood logged from it. But the process doesn't end there. Next come annual audits, and after five years, the whole certification process is repeated. Like the original certification, it can cost a landowner anywhere from about $5,000 to $50,000 or more.

Landowners--whether individuals or companies--hire FSC-accredited groups to do the certifying. The two such U.S. groups are the nonprofit Smart Wood program of the Rainforest Alliance, based in New York, with an office in Costa Rica; and the for-profit company Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) of Oakland, California. …

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