Forest Certification: Let The Free Market Work

Timothy Lee

12/21/2013 12:01:00 AM - Timothy Lee

The issue of forest certification for wood and paper products doesn’t dominate current headlines, but unwise government policies and destructive campaigns undertaken by environmental activists can create very negative consequences for American consumers and businesses alike.

In recent decades, forest certification systems have become increasingly prevalent and influential. Essentially, landowners voluntarily partner with a certification organization with the goal of ensuring responsible cultivation of their lands. Following certification, they can then market wood and paper products that bear the marking of the certifying program, thus providing assurance to consumers who value eco-friendly products. Accordingly, that market-driven system can cater to consumers without top-down bureaucratic mandates from governments that distort markets.

Currently, three prominent certification programs exist in the U.S. – (1) the American Tree Farm System (ATFS), (2) Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), and (3) Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) – all of which aim to promote responsible land management.

Unfortunately, environmental extremists and too many federal, state, and local governments arbitrarily seek to limit choice among those three certification alternatives. Every year, more and more cities needlessly make Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (“LEED”) certification mandatory in their buildings, which is biased in favor of wood certified by FSC rather than either ATFS or SFI. That ends up disadvantaging the majority of American businesses in the forest products industry by potentially blocking them from city, state, and federal projects, because more domestic tree farmers, suppliers, and retailers utilize wood recognized by ATFS or SFI rather than the FSC.

Accordingly, in the case of LEED-certified projects, top-down mandates distort markets in a manner that increases the price of wood and costs to taxpayers for publicly-financed construction projects.

Moreover, that favoritism toward FSC timber is not based on any clear environmental reason. The actual, real-world, hard evidence does not demonstrate any substantive environmental benefit in favoring FSC over the other two prominent certification systems, SFI or ATFS. Numerous studies, such as one published in the Journal of Forestry, have examined the impact of FSC and SFI forest certification in the U.S. and Canada and found few differences in land management outcomes of those two alternative systems.

Additionally, a diverse set of organizations including the League of Conservation Voters, Wildlife Society, and National Association of Conservation Districts also favor a more level playing field for certification systems. Regardless of one’s opinion on those organizations more broadly, all of them certainly possess greater on-the-ground expertise regarding forestry than the extremist environmental activists who tend to come from marketing backgrounds and lack credentials pertaining to land management or environmental science.

For example, activist organizations like one called ForestEthics seek to discourage the use of some certification programs in order to promote just one program: FSC. In light of the fact that most businesses, whether large or small, don’t certify their products at all, one would think that environmental activists would applaud companies who certify their products, not demonize them. The unfortunate success of some of these campaigns in turn makes it more difficult for products recognized by certification programs other than FSC to enter key consumer and retail markets. Hopefully, retailers nationwide will follow the lead of businesses like Bank of America, Office Max, and Harper Collins, who are supportive of multiple, credible forest certification programs. By adopting pro-certification policies that don’t favor one program over others, these companies help keep paper markets competitive.

In the end, the victims of public demonization campaigns are not just the businesses that sell forest products, but also the tree farmers, millworkers, small businesses, and others that harvest and supply them.

A better alternative would be for forest sustainability advocates to treat ATFS, FSC, and SFI certified wood equally. Doing so would create incentives that actually encourage certification instead of undermining it. While forest certification imposes direct costs on family tree farmers as they invest time and energy meeting benchmarks for programs like FSC, SFI, and ATFS, it can also offset longer-term benefits down the road by expanding their customer bases and increase revenues by increasing the number of outlets through which to market their products.

Fortunately, the past year has witnessed several positive developments in that regard. First, multiple states have endorsed building codes for public projects that treat certified timber equally. And at the federal level, the General Services Administration (GSA) finally recommended that federal agencies be allowed to choose either LEED or Green Globes as their standards for construction projects. Green Globes recognizes ATFS and SFI timber as sustainable, thus overcoming the LEED monopoly problem detailed above. The Department of Defense (DOD) recently announced that it will recognize Green Globes too.

Despite that welcome, more market-based progress, more can and should be done. Any efforts to promote energy-efficient markets must be driven by the free and competitive market, not government policies continuing to pick winners and losers. To that end, government agencies and large-scale retailers should not be fooled or intimidated by agenda-driven activists. Allowing that to occur will only stifle growth and kill jobs during this time of economic uncertainty.

America’s forests contribute tens billions of dollars annually to the domestic economy and generate large revenues for local, state and federal governments. To keep that vital economic sector strong, policymakers must ensure that landowners can maximize their resources and more freely market their products to consumers.