Certification Comes to Family Forests

Certification Comes to Family Forests

The view from John Sullivan’s Kipp Mountain Tree Farm.
Photo courtesy of John Sullivan

John Sullivan didn’t set out to have his forest certified. He just wanted to take good care of the woods. His 300 acres near Chestertown, New York, have been in the family since 1875, when his great-grandfather bought the land and started farming it. The farm included a small woodlot. When the family left in 1910, trees started returning to the rest of the property. And there the land sat for most of four decades, growing wood. 

Then, in the late 1940s, Sullivan’s great-uncle had it logged. “They hammered it,” Sullivan told me as we talked over lunch at the Deer Crossing Diner in Chestertown. 

Several years later, when Sullivan was in his teens, his mother bought out the other family members, who had shared ownership of the land. Sullivan’s parents, Christina and Bob, wanted to learn how to manage their woods and soon started making trips up from New Jersey to the Adirondacks to meet with a forester from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). 

John Sullivan took the reins in the 1970s. If he was going to own these woods and pay taxes on them, he wanted to be an active steward. He lived and worked in Washington, D.C., but made regular trips to the Adirondacks and kept in touch with the DEC forester there. It was the forester who steered him toward Tree Farm. 

Formally known as the American Tree Farm System (ATFS), Tree Farm is recognizable nationwide by its distinctive green-and- white, diamond-shaped signs reading “Wood, Water, Recreation, Wildlife.” The program helped Sullivan see that, for owners of small forests, there’s strength in numbers. 

American Tree Farm System sign.
Photo courtesy ATFS

Through his membership in Tree Farm and in the local chapter of the New York Forest Owners Association (NYFOA), Sullivan became part of a network of people who were eager to learn from each other and took pride in investing in long-term forest values. Those values included growing healthy, high-quality trees for generations to come, while protecting forest soils and waterways from erosion and other damage. They also included managing for conservation of wildlife habitat and native plant species and for recreational uses such as hiking, cross-country skiing, bird-watching, and hunting. Sullivan valued Tree Farm’s successful efforts to foster an environmental consciousness among small, private landowners. 

Then, in the early 1990s, something new caught his attention. An international movement had been sparked by concerns over global forest problems such as illegal logging and the rampant destruction of rainforests – concerns that culminated in the forestry discussions at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. These were issues that the Tree Farm program wasn’t designed to confront. 

In response to these global issues, the international nonprofit Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) was formed in 1993 by a consortium of groups with interests in society, the environment, and the economy. The new organization had an ambitious goal: to improve forest management worldwide. Sullivan followed FSC’s development as it grew into the first international system of “third-party forest certification” – wherein an independent, accredited organization evaluates on-the-ground conformance with a given set of standards and puts a stamp of approval on landowners’ management practices. He was intrigued by what he saw. 

“It got the whole industry thinking,” Sullivan recalled. In 1994, the American Forest and Paper Association followed suit with its own system, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). Originally a self-verification system, SFI morphed into a fullblown third-party system by the late 1990s. 

Certification seemed like an excellent step toward the goal of better forestry practices, but Sullivan didn’t see any way for a forest owner like himself to pursue certification. It would cost thousands of dollars – far too much for most small landowners to afford on their own. 

Then, several years later, Sullivan received a call from the director of the non-profit Residents’ Committee to Protect the Adirondacks (RCPA). The organization planned to pool a number of properties and apply for FSC group certification. As part of a group, each landowner’s costs could be reduced. And RCPA would help cover those costs, making it even more affordable. 

Sullivan jumped at the opportunity. He knew that FSC’s standards would either validate or challenge and improve what he’d been doing on the land for 25 years. And Sullivan figured there might someday be a market advantage to having his woods certified. In 2002, when RCPA was accredited as an FSC group manager, Sullivan’s parcel was one of the first to be enrolled. 

A matter of scale

Other groups have been formed to take advantage of the FSC group-certificate option, but it’s still uncommon for “family forests” like Sullivan’s – private, non-industrial parcels of anywhere from a few acres to a few thousand acres – to have FSC certification. Even though 60 percent of the nation’s wooded acres are owned as family forests, until recently, less than one percent of this acreage was third-party certified. 

In contrast, just a decade and a half after FSC and SFI were created, about 70 percent of the larger corporate timber holdings in the U.S. are certified under one or both systems. (Many publicly owned forests, including state lands in Maine and New York, are certified as well.) Corporate timber owners’ enrollment in certification programs is not due entirely to their environmental ethics. Over time, it has become a near necessity for selling wood on the global papermaking market. 

There was, for example, a substantial increase in the pressure toward certification when just one large paper purchaser, Time, Inc., gave notice that it wanted 80 percent of its paper to be certified by the end of 2006. Time – a member of the corporate Paper Working Group collaboration – uses an estimated 500,000 tons of paper annually to publish over 120 magazines. Suppliers wanting to sell to Time and other like-minded purchasers had to go through the lengthy and rigorous process of becoming certified, often obtaining dual certification through both FSC and SFI. Today in the Northern Forest states, nearly four million acres are certified to the FSC standard while over seven million acres are certified by SFI. 

So far, similar market pressures and advantages have not yet come fully into play for family forests. Still, some landowners want to have their certification in place, either to validate their management practices now or to be ready when it does make a difference in the marketplace.

Carbon Trading

The emerging market opportunities for certified forests aren’t limited to tangible products. Enter carbon trading. With concern growing over global climate change, the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX) was formed in 2003 as the world’s first voluntary, legally binding trading system aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. CCX participants – which include companies such as Ford, IBM, DuPont, and Sony – must meet annual emission reduction targets. Participation is voluntary, and those that emit above the targets must mitigate their emissions, primarily by purchasing carbon offset credits. 

That’s where forests come in. Rapidly growing trees remove CO2 from the atmosphere, tying it up – “sequestering” it – in wood, leaves, bark, and roots. Carbon trading income for eligible landowners is likely to be modest, in the range of $3 to $10 per acre per year. But it provides a more regular check than once-a-decade logging jobs and can pay a portion of annual property taxes. And payments might increase if the U.S. follows Europe’s lead by establishing mandatory carbon emission reductions. For a forest owner to sell carbon credits through CCX, the forest must be third-party certified and have a recent inventory demonstrating its sequestration capacity.

Landowners can gain access to the carbon market by working through approved CCX “aggregators.” Aggregation services are offered by private firms such as FORECON , Inc., a forestry and environmental consulting firm based in Falconer, New York. Aggregation is also offered by CarbonTree, LLC , a cooperative venture of the American Forest Foundation and the Empire State Forest Products Association. CarbonTree is one of three aggregation pilot projects ATFS is conducting nationwide. The Residents’ Committee to Protect the Adirondacks has also submitted a proposal to CCX. If it is approved, forest owners with land enrolled in RCPA’s 13,000-acre FSC group certification will become eligible to sell carbon credits. 

Selling carbon credits may not be for everyone, however, because managing a forest for carbon sequestration may make it harder to manage for other values, such as wildlife habitat enhancement, biomass production, or recreation. Also, only rapidly regrowing forests are suitable, since a mature forest is not increasing its carbon storage at a significant rate, if at all. Finally, because the carbon needs to remain sequestered, carbon-credit programs have long time horizons that may constrain future management options.


The FSC route

For years, the only third-party certification option for smaller forest owners was the route John Sullivan took: participating in a group with the Forest Stewardship Council. 

Some FSC groups, like the one Sullivan joined, are managed by nonprofit organizations. Here in the Northeast, these nonprofits include the Residents’ Committee to Protect the Adirondacks, the Massachusetts Woodlands Cooperative, and the Maine-based Trust to Conserve Northeast Forestlands (TCNF). They also include Vermont Family Forests, which, in 1998, became the first FSC group manager to make certification available to family forest owners in New England or New York. 

Other FSC groups are managed by private forestry firms. Two Trees Forestry in Winthrop, Maine, manages 62 FSC-certified properties totaling 14,500 acres. The group managed by Redstart Forestry in Corinth, Vermont, has 16 members who own a total of about 2,000 acres. The group managed by The Ecosystem Management Company of New London, New Hampshire, includes 23 parcels with six different owners totaling 18,300 acres. New England Forestry Consultants manages 5,400 acres for seven landowners across three states, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts. Bevan Forestry in Livingston Manor, New York, has a pool of just over 600 acres held by six owners. 

Larger forestry firms, such as Fountains Forestry, also manage FSC group certifications, but relatively few of the parcels they manage are in the family-forest size range. David Daut, president of Fountains Forestry, notes that his firm could certify a parcel of any size, but so far only the larger investment properties have taken that option. 

Once an appropriate management plan is in place, the costs of FSC group certification vary widely. A private forestry firm might charge an initial entry fee of several hundred dollars to enroll a 100-acre parcel, as well as more modest annual fees and periodic audit charges. 

Other firms treat the cost of certification as part of their overhead and don’t pass any specific fees on to landowners. Harold Burnett, owner of Two Trees Forestry, points out that managing his group certification has cost him about as much as the difference between a new truck and a used one. So he drives a second-hand rig and invests in certification. 

Non-profit organizations, while they pass on some cost to landowners, often have grant money available to help defray expenses. In August 2008, for example, the Verso Paper Corporation, which operates mills in Jay and Bucksport, Maine, announced that it would make a $100,000 grant to the Trust to Conserve Northeast Forestlands. The grant is dedicated to expanding the TCNF’s FSC certification program by adding both small and large parcels throughout New England and New York. The initial goal is to certify an additional 100,000 acres in 12 months. 


Raw materials from certified forests – and the products made from them – are labeled in a variety of ways. The highest level of certification is represented by a “chain-of-custody” label. This label confirms the tracking of wood and wood products, from forest to end-user, including every link in the chain of processing and distribution along the way. 

Because chain-of-custody certification requires such thorough tracking and documentation, the forest itself is not the only part of the chain that must be certified. For an end-product to bear a chain-of-custody label, every company or organization along the supply chain from forest to end user must be chain-of-custody certified as well. 

There are also various types of “fiber-sourcing” (SFI) and “controlled wood” (FSC) labels, which make more general claims. They might assure consumers, for example, that the labeled materials and products were not harvested illegally, did not come from environmentally sensitive areas, or came from within a specific area (such as North America).


A second option: Tree Farm

The first forestry organization Sullivan joined – Tree Farm – also offers third-party certification for smaller forest owners. This is a recent development, dating from 2008. (See accompanying story on page 31.) All Tree Farms in good standing now have third-party certification. To join Tree Farm, you need 10 or more acres and a written management plan that meets the American Forest Foundation’s standards of sustainability. Beyond providing and adhering to that plan, there is usually no cost to enroll. 

Prior to 2008, there was only one way to receive third-party certification through Tree Farm: by participating in the Tree Farm Group Program. David and Tanya Tellman took this route, though they first joined ATFS as individual members. After David’s retirement from the military in 1989, the couple settled in northern New Hampshire and bought 500 acres of spruce and fir, with some northern hardwoods mixed in. The land had been sheep pasture in the early 19th century. In the years since, it had grown back to forest and had been cut hard a couple of times: the best trees taken for sawtimber, others for pulpwood. The Tellmans wanted to leave the property in better condition than when they purchased it. Like John Sullivan, they were encouraged by their county forester to join Tree Farm. 

Tree Farmers David and Tanya Tellman
on their New Hampshire woodlot.

Photo by Malvin Ely Clyde

Today the Tellmans are part of the NewPage Corporation’s Tree Farm group, which includes 15 members who own over 5,400 acres in New Hampshire and Maine. Across the country, ATFS has 17 independently managed group programs, totaling over 4.6 million certified acres on over 51,000 properties. 

States get with the program

Depending on which state your land is in, you may have another avenue to certification, as a handful of states now offer group certification to qualifying landowners. Wisconsin took the lead in this direction, building on its current use program, known as Managed Forest Law (MFL). (“Current use” or “use value” programs exist in most states. They offer property tax incentives that encourage land owners to preserve open space, especially on forest and agricultural land.) Wisconsin’s MFL program requires more rigorous, longer-term commitments than most current use programs. Each parcel must adhere to a detailed 25- or 50-year forest stewardship plan. If a landowner refuses to follow through with the plan, the parcel is withdrawn from MFL and all back taxes must be paid, figured at the most recent rate.

This strict forestry policy put Wisconsin in a good position when the state decided to seek certification for MFL lands. First, in 2005, MFL was approved under an ATFS group certificate. Unless owners opted out, every parcel enrolled in MFL became part of that ATFS group. Then, in late 2008, MFL was awarded FSC certification. The vast majority of MFL land – almost 2.2 million acres held by nearly 41,000 individual landowners – is now dual-certified and, in addition to the state’s stringent internal monitoring, is subject to annual independent audits. The state plans to pay all related expenses, amounting to less than $2 per parcel over the first five years. 

Paul Pingrey, Forest Certification Coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, notes that the forest products industry has suffered heavy employment losses in recent years and that only one sector of the industry has seen growth in Wisconsin: the demand for certified products. 

Closer to home, Massachusetts is on a similar path. In 2006, lands enrolled in two state programs for landowners, the Forest Stewardship Program and the current use program, Chapter 61, were audited for FSC eligibility. The green light was given for certification of these lands – pending state compliance with preconditions. According to Jim DiMaio, the state’s Chief Forester, the last hurdle was cleared in late 2008 with the allocation of funds to fill a new staff position dedicated to overseeing the program. A total of 5,500 parcels encompassing 330,000 acres will be certified through FSC. The state will cover all certification costs for at least the first five years. 

On the Origin of Certifications

Though their paths have intersected, FSC and Tree Farm came to certification by very different routes.

When the American Tree Farm System (ATFS) was initiated by the Weyerhaeuser Timber Company in 1941, it was designed to educate nonindustrial forest owners about good forest management and thereby help to ensure a steady wood supply for the forest products industry in the U.S. The international Forest Stewardship Council, in contrast, was formed five decades later to combat global deforestation.

How, then, did ATFS and FSC end up side by side, both offering third-party certification for family-owned U.S. forestland?

The Forest Stewardship Council’s story is brief. Formed in 1993, FSC received support from conservation, social justice, and business organizations around the world and quickly grew into the first international system for third-party forest certification. Headquartered in Bonn, Germany, FSC oversees forest certification standards being applied in over 80 countries. FSC’s guidelines cover ecological and economic sustainability as well as cultural survival, workers’ rights, and other factors. FSC-US was established in 1995 as the national chapter of FSC.

In the past, FSC certification has been sought primarily by larger-scale timber owners, but recently the organization has identified increasing certification of smaller, family-owned forests as a key goal. According to Fran Price, director of certification programs for the Forest Trade Program of The Nature Conservancy and a member of the FSC-US board, new standards – which take effect in early 2009 – will include streamlined procedures for certification of family forests.

“Family forests will be held to the same standards. We aren’t lowering the bar,” Price said. “But, at present, small-scale operations can have difficulty documenting certain aspects of their performance. To make certification more accessible, we’re finding ways to streamline the documentation requirements so that the evaluation criteria make more sense for family forests.”

The American Tree Farm System – now a program of the nonprofit American Forest Foundation’s Center for Family Forests – has a more complex history. ATFS has always focused on small, private forest owners. And it has required that members adhere to management standards that take wood, watershed, soil, and habitat impacts into consideration. But for most of the 90,000 current member properties – encompassing 24 million privately owned acres in 46 states – there has been no third-party oversight. As critics have noted, Tree Farm’s volunteer inspecting foresters have long faced a basic conflict of interest: they have been certifying their own work.

In recent years, the American Tree Farm System has worked hard to improve its programs and overcome that credibility gap. ATFS has reorganized its internal auditing system, moving away from the traditional five-year reinspection schedule and instituting an annual randomized sample inspection of properties around the country, covering every state with a Tree Farm Committee. Further, it has arranged for independent certifying bodies to conduct regional third-party audits each year.

ATFS made this last move – the addition of independent certifiers – with clear awareness of certification’s increasing market clout. The move was aimed at turning Tree Farm into a fully recognized third-party certification system. In August 2008, Tree Farm’s efforts were rewarded by endorsement from the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification schemes (PEFC), an independent nonprofit based in Geneva, Switzerland, that serves as an umbrella organization, assessing and endorsing national forest certification standards around the world.

ATFS is the second U.S. certification scheme to be endorsed by PEFC. The first, in 2005, was the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, a program designed to certify large corporate-owned forests. Now that ATFS is a globally recognized third-party system, wood from Tree Farms can be included in the chain-of-custody certification labeling used by PEFC and SFI.

All these recent changes may pose a challenge to Tree Farm’s long tradition of not passing any costs on to landowners. Historically, ATFS was most actively promoted by government service foresters with explicit instructions to do so. These foresters – along with many private consulting foresters – also served as ATFS volunteer inspectors.

Now there are new standards to implement. At the same time, funding for public forest services is waning. Though ATFS is committed to providing affordable family forest certification and will pay for the independent third-party audits, volunteer foresters remain the backbone of the American Tree Farm System. If the volunteer structure doesn’t hold up, who is going to pay the bills?

One possible answer is suggested by the experimental approach Vermont took in 2006. There, each Tree Farmer is now charged a $10 annual fee to cover administrative costs. More significantly, Vermont’s Tree Farm program allows foresters to begin charging for the traditional five-year inspections. Other state programs continue to rely on various incentives to encourage foresters to keep up with their inspections.

By earning certification through either system – the Forest Stewardship Council or the American Tree Farm System – family forest owners become part of a rapid change in the international wood-and-fiber trade. Between 2000 and 2007, the global area of certified forests expanded from approximately 110 million acres to over 750 million acres. PEFC-endorsed certification systems such as Tree Farm account for about two-thirds of this area, FSC certifications for about one-third. (FSC- and PEFCendorsed systems do not recognize one another’s certifications. Thus, dual certification is required for a seller to have full access to all certified wood markets.)

While the international growth of certification is impressive, the scale of the world’s forests puts things in perspective. Globally, over 9.7 billion acres of the earth are forested. Less than 10 percent of those forested acres are certified. The vast majority of that certified area is in the temperate and boreal forests of the northern hemisphere. Only one percent of the world’s tropical forests have certification.

FSC-certified lumber.
Photo courtesy FSC

An advantage in the marketplace?

For family forest owners – those considering all these options and those who already have certification – the question remains: Whatever its other benefits, when will certification bring them a real market advantage? 

David and Tanya Tellman, for example, are enthusiastic about Tree Farm and are extraordinarily active in education efforts. Over the past 17 years, they’ve hosted tours of their land for more than 3,000 people interested in forestry and wildlife. They also lead outdoor education programs for kids and volunteer with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department’s Wonders of Wildlife program in local elementary schools. And they like to believe that their adherence to good forestry standards has led buyers to view their wood favorably. But their participation in ATFS hasn’t directly brought them higher log prices. 

As David Tellman put it, “We expect to see an increase in demand. But there’s nothing you can sink your teeth into yet.” There may be soon, as more links are forged between family forest owners and end-user markets. 

When Harold Burnett of Two Trees Forestry sells wood for his clients, the best marketing opportunity is usually through a traditional stumpage auction. The bidders are generally logging contractors and mills, and the FSC label rarely carries clout with them. But in a recent sale, one bidder asked whether the wood was certified, and Burnett replied that it could be. The bidder submitted a dual price list. On both pulp and sawlogs, the prices offered for certified wood were 15 to 30 percent higher. 

These dramatic price differences may never become commonplace. Instead, some observers anticipate that it will simply become harder to sell noncertified wood, as certification becomes the norm, even for small parcels. If the pulp and lumber markets start demanding higher percentages of certified wood, that could drive more and more family forest owners toward certification. 

Niche opportunities could also draw a few landowners, as buyers seek local, certified wood. In 2007, Old Adirondack, Inc., was looking for FSC-certified, Adirondack-grown white cedar. In the past, they’d built “authentic” Adirondack chairs with noncertified wood from Vermont. The company found John Sullivan – and a friend of his who was willing to mill the wood – and a deal was struck. 

Specialized local sales are more formally organized by business networks such as Catskill WoodNet and by non-profits like the Massachusetts Woodlands Cooperative and Vermont Family Forests, who offer FSC group certification and also market wood products from member properties, notably hardwood lumber and flooring. 

Forest Certification Structures

Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC)

American Tree Farm System (ATFS)
• Individual memberships – by far the most common
• Independently managed group certificates – run by a group manager
(e.g. NewPage Corporation, Wisconsin’s Managed Forest Law Program)
Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI)
Canadian Standards Association’s Sustainable Forest Management Program
• More than 20 other national certification standards around the world

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)

FSC-Accredited Certifiers

Scientific Certification Systems
Bureau Veritas Certification
SGS Systems and Services
• More than a dozen others around the world

Specific certifications

• Individual Certifications (large private & public holdings)
• Group Certifications, such as those in main story
• Private forestry group managers (such as Two Trees Forestry, Redstart Forestry, The Ecosystem Management Company, Fountains Forestry, New England Forestry Consultants, Bevan Forestry)
• Nonprofit group managers (such as Vermont Family Forests,
Massachusetts Woodlands Cooperative, The Nature Conservancy, Trust to Conserve Northeast Forestland, Residents’ Committee to Protect the Adirondacks)
• States (such as Wisconsin Managed Forest Law Program, Massachusetts Forest Stewardship and Chapter 61 Programs)

Keeping the basics in mind

John Sullivan milling FSC-certified white pine on his portable
band-saw mill. The boards were kiln dried in a solar-powered
kiln and sold to a reproduction furniture maker in the
Hudson Valley.

Photo courtesy John Sullivan

With the growing market potential for certified wood products and the increased ease with which small parcels can become certified, family forest owners have good reason to be excited. But foresters and landowners alike caution against losing sight of the basic point: improved forest management. 

When Harold Burnett meets with new clients, he focuses on helping them understand what’s happening on their land: “They need to know what good forestry is about – why we don’t run skidders through brooks, why we try to leave some dead trees standing, why we typically leave the best trees to grow.” For many forest owners, the learning curve can be steep. Burnett prefers not to clutter the discussion and the learning process by talking about the complicated issue of certification. 

John Sullivan hopes this kind of clutter can be avoided as the American Tree Farm System and the Forest Stewardship Council take their next steps. He’s happy to see forest owners become interested in certification and possibly gain market advantages. But, as he sees it, what really matters is involving more landowners in good stewardship. 

“We need to keep reaching out to the folks who aren’t specifically interested in certification,” said Sullivan. “The main idea is to get a professional plan in place and help people learn the rudiments of forest management.”

Tovar Cerulli has worked as a logger, carpenter, and freelance writer. He lives in Vermont.


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