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Certification: Definition and Background
What is forest certification?
Certification is a market-based, non-regulatory forest conservation tool designed to recognize and promote environmentally-responsible forestry and sustainability of forest resources. The certification process involves an evaluation of management planning and forestry practices by a third-party according to an agreed-upon set of standards. Certification standards address social and economic welfare as well as environmental protection.

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) are two of the main standards operating in North America for larger ownerships. The American Tree Farm System (ATFS) is the largest certification system for small private landowners. Green Tag, a program of the National Woodland Owners Association, also offers certification for small private landowners.

How are forests certified?

Becoming certified differs somewhat among the certification programs. However, third party certification is based on onsite comprehensive assessments performed by an accredited auditing firm. The auditing firms for certification systems conduct up-front coordination and preliminary review with the landowner seeking certification. If merited, the auditing firms return and conduct and more comprehensive assessment, which includes an evaluation of all types of activities in the forests and whether they conform with the many requirements in the certification standards. The evaluation also includes interviews with contractors, and others who are affected by--or just interested in--how the lands are managed. Through these stages, auditors pay close attention to the overall management system, including the management plan and monitoring programs, to make sure that landowners are capable of tracking and maintaining healthy forests over the long-term.

At completion of the assessment, the auditing firms submit a certification report, which includes a recommendation on whether the landowner is ready to become certified. A affirmative recommendation for certification is often accompanied by requests for changes in management to better conform to the certification standard. A summary of findings is made publicly available.

How do I know wood is certified?
In most cases, wood coming from certified forestlands is tracked through the production chain and into the marketplace, thereby allowing businesses and consumers to choose wood products that are managed to recognized standards. Wood grown and harvested in a manner that satisfies certification standards may be labeled as such based on program guidelines.

Since these are case studies and will not result in the certification of a national forest, any wood harvested from the national forests taking part in these case studies will not be considered certified and cannot be labeled. The principal goal in this study is to better understand whether a national forest could become certified, and what affect that would have on management. Additionally, it will help to better understand how becoming certified would affect purchasers of material harvested from national forests.

Is certification compatible with other goals of forest management that are critical on public lands, such as restoring ecosystems and providing recreation areas?
Yes. All kinds of landowners have become certified under the various certification systems. Certification is designed to assure the public that a landowner is following standards that promote sound forest stewardship, which includes ecosystem restoration. Certification requirements seek to integrate ecological, socio-cultural, and economic considerations into forest management. How the FSC and SFI systems will regard the overall balance of multiple goals pursued by national forests will be an interesting outcome of this study.

What is the experience of other public lands with certification?

When third-party forest certification first came about in the U.S. in the early 1990s it was first applied to the lands of private forest products companies. Forest certification was a promising new way for these companies and other early adopters to demonstrate their commitment to sustainable forest management and distinguish themselves in the marketplace. Within five years, with the FSC system growing and AF&PA's SFI Program evolving to become a third-party certification program, the questions over whether public forestry organizations should become certified were ripe. At this time the Pinchot Institute embarked on a series of projects to test the applicability of certification on public lands.

In 1998, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania became the first state to participate in the study. At the same time, the state of Minnesota embarked on a pilot certification of 500,000 acres under the management of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. FSC certification of the entire 2.1 million acres of state forest managed by the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry required some adjustments in management and in existing public policy, detailed in a strategic plan issued by the Bureau of Forestry. Subsequently, the Pinchot Institute sought to expand the study to include other states. By this time, the SFI third-party certification system had become established. This provided the Pinchot Institute with the additional opportunity of having forest resource managers compare the relevance and performance of these two different programs, as well as of independent, third-party certification overall.

In 2001, the Pinchot Institute for Conservation undertook the first comprehensive field-based comparative analysis of the two leading forest certification programs in the United States, that of the FSC and the SFI. Five public forest management agencies in five states and two university systems participated in the study, and all but one agency completed the "dual assessment." The total area of public forestland evaluated in this study was 700,000 acres.

Now a large number of public forestlands have become certified. In fact the majority of the FSC-certified forestland in the U.S. is public land. However, these are still mostly state lands. No federal lands have become SFI certified, and only the forestlands of Fort Lewis, an installation of the Department of Defense, have become FSC-certified. Presently, Marsh-Billings National Historic Site is completing an FSC assessment, following on a case study initiated by the Pinchot Institute.

 

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