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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Forest Certification Programs

Katie Hoover
Analyst in Natural Resources Policy

The national forests have been the focus of controversy for many years. Reduced timber harvests, increased wildfire risks, degraded forest health, and disagreements among users and other stakeholders have led to congressional disputes over appropriate management. Some interests have suggested third-party certification of sustainable management of the national forests as a possible solution to many of these difficulties. There are two major certification programs in the United States: the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) program.

The FSC and SFI programs are very similar in many regards. Both programs use a multistakeholder approach that balances environmental, social, and economic interests to negotiate broadly acceptable standards of sustainable forest management. Both programs use independent, accredited third parties to verify compliance with the standards. Both programs have stakeholder involvement and public transparency requirements. Within the standards, both programs have similar coverage in terms of requirements for harvest operations, wildlife and habitat management, water and soil protection, and decision-making and management planning.

Despite these similarities, the SFI and FSC programs do have some distinct differences. The programs each emphasize different sustainability objectives: the SFI program emphasizes sustainable timber harvesting, and places forest management as a tool to achieve that objective; the FSC program emphasizes sustainable forest management, and places timber harvests as one tool to achieve that objective. The SFI standard is generally more flexible, while the FSC standard is generally more prescriptive with more on-the-ground performance requirements.

How certification would affect the management of the national forests is uncertain. However, certification could evaluate the extent to which the forest management plans align with the standards of each certification program, and then evaluate the extent to which those forest plans are being implemented. A third-party evaluation of the forest plans, and their implementation, could potentially alleviate—or escalate—stakeholder and congressional disputes over the appropriate management of the national forests.

It is unclear whether the Forest Service has the existing authority to certify the national forests. If Congress chooses to require certification of the national forests, there are other questions to consider, including which certification program(s) to require; what (if any) forest management process requirements (e.g., public involvement standards) might be relaxed; and what would be the impact on timber purchasers of processing certified sustainable wood. Congress may also consider if certification should occur across the entire National Forest System, or at the unit level, and then how many and which units should be certified.

Date of Report: September 8, 2011
Number of Pages: 41
Order Number: R41992
Price: $29.95

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