New Tool Aims to Assess Landscape-Level Forest Sustainability

Posted: April 17, 2017

Source: Sustainable Brands
By Tom Martin

Image Credit: Loren Kerns

Image Credit: LorenKerns

As with most industries these days, companies in paper and packaging know that their customers — be they publishers, fast food companies or office suppliers — want to buy products that are deemed sustainable. They know that millions of dollars can depend on whether their products can meet this threshold.

As a result, these companies look to buy wood that is certified by one of the third-party audited systems, such as the Forest Stewardship Council, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative or the American Tree Farm System, which provide independent verification that lands producing wood and paper are managed sustainably.

However, because of a lack of supply, paper and packaging companies are often forced to buy non-certified wood. Why?

Consider this: 47 percent of the U.S. wood supply that flows through supply chains comes from family-owned land. In the southern United States, it is 51 percent. Who are these landowners? They are the more than 22 million families and individuals that own forest land. They represent a cross section of Americans. Most do not rely on their forest land for income. They have day jobs in offices and factories. Most are middle class. Very often, their property has passed down through generations. The average property size is smaller than you might think — the average being 66 acres.

Collectively, these family landowners own more than one-third of US forests. This is more than the forest industry or the federal government. Yet nationwide, less than three percent of family landowners certify their land. This is because certification does not offer a compelling value proposition for small, private landowners.

There are various reasons for this. Family owners are often focused on personal goals, such as keeping land in the family, protecting nature and providing habitat for wildlife, rather than generating income. Certification may not feel a good match for these goals.

In addition, the size of the property makes certification economically impractical. The costs and time commitments required for certification are too much, considering the potential economic returns.

But just because these lands aren’t certified, doesn’t mean their owners manage their land unsustainably. In fact, many forestry experts contend that many uncertified forest owners practice sound, sustainable forest management.

This creates a dilemma for the industry. Many forest product companies and brands know that often family forest owners are managing their land sustainably, but are unable or unwilling to go through the certification process. However, certification is currently the only tool in the industry to show customers that lands are managed sustainably.

GreenBlue’s Forest Product Working Group (FPWG) and the American Forest Foundation (AFF) have been working together to solve this problem. We have solicited input from a wide range of stakeholders – ranging from companies such as Staples, Mars Inc. and McDonald’s, nongovernmental organizations, family forest owners and state and federal agencies. Together, these groups have been exploring what type of tool could be developed to meet the needs of industry, without putting an undue burden on landowners.

Together, we are exploring a new evaluation tool that would assess how we are achieving forest sustainability – protecting water and wildlife, replanting trees, etc – at the landscape level, rather than just parcel by parcel. This would provide increased visibility into wood baskets with a high concentration of small family forest owners to show sustainability at scale.

This proposed tool will aggregate data from different sources, and will recognize and support existing forest-certification systems. It will also utilize credible, publicly available data, such as the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis data, and incorporate best management practice adoption rates generated by state governments.

This landscape-based evaluation tool may also help showcase sustainability benefits in areas where forest certification is used. It can also highlight opportunities to further engage family landowners in conservation programs.

So far, the approach has been met with much enthusiasm from landowners and brand owners alike. The next step in the process is to develop a prototype of the concept. That means there is still time for more input from other stakeholders. We invite you to get involved by contacting Sarah Crow of the American Forest Foundation.