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Environmentally Managed Forests Earn Certification
By Leif Enger
December 8, 1997

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Aitkin County in central Minnesota made headlines a few weeks ago when the Smartwood organization certified half a million acres of state and county forest. Smartwood is an international non-profit group that approves woodlands managed under strict environmental guidelines. Wood from certified forests is specially labeled and ostensibly fetches a premium price from consumers increasingly fretful over clearcutting and global warming.

Jacobs: I'm gonna take you out and show my favorite tree out here.
CONSIDERING THIS IS A 15,000 ACRE WOODS, Mark Jacobs knows a surprising number of trees personally. Tramping through the crust of early winter, Jacobs, Aitkin County's assistant land commissioner, leads the way to a fuzzy-barked yellow birch.
Jacobs: This is a tremendously valuable tree.You can see where we removed a defective maple back in about 1990, to give this tree more growing space. This'll be a tremendously high value log - probably won't be cut for another 20 years, but we're planning for the future.
For years Aitkin County has taken a careful approach to forestry - thinning trees, taking out poor specimens, clearcutting in small patches instead of large. The results are some of the state's finest stands of northern hardwood trees, a forest that feeds loggers and sawmills, but also red fox, white-tailed deer, and migratory birds.
Jacobs: Scarlet tanagers, you'll see a lot of those in here. Ovenbirds, black-throated green warblers, these are species that live winters in the rain forests of Central and South America, then migrate all the way up here to breed and nest and eat insects, primarily the insects that eat the leaves of these deciduous trees.
With its cautious harvesting schedule and consideration for wildlife, Jacobs says it made sense for the county to apply for timber certification. Certification requires deliberate logging, keeping streams and wildlife in mind, and cleaning up spilled oil and slash piles. It's a little like dolphin-free tuna for the wood business: a certified forest sells wood to a certified sawmill; that sawmill makes it into certified veneer, or flooring, or tabletops. A table built of certified wood is just like a table of regular wood - except it probably costs a little more, and it comes with a reassuring label.
Donovan: You can go and see a forest where this came from, and there's actually a forest there. It's not turned into a parking lot. It's peace of mind.
Richard Donovan is program director for Smartwood - one of several certifying groups under the umbrella of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The FSC is a non-government organization comprised of environmentalists, biologists, foresters, and social scientists. Donovan says its aim is to protect endangered forests worldwide by focusing the heat of consumer disapproval on managers it deems environmentally - or socially - unfit.
Donovan: The idea that you as a consumer - that you through your purchases can foster that kind of management, that's what's revolutionary. Everywhere you go now, market dynamics are under the capitalist system. Somehow, within that system, we have to reward people who do it right from a social and environmental perspective.
Smartwood representatives cite examples: some forests in Burma and Thailand weren't certified because of illicit trade in teak. In South America, timber companies were denied certification for underpaying workers. Even Aitkin County, in addition to proving its forestry management strengths, had to show it wasn't abusing or discriminating against employees.

Not everyone is thrilled by such social conscience forest management. The big paper companies are watching the FSC closely, in part to see whether the public buys the concept of certified wood products. John Heisenbutle of the American Forest and Paper Association believes the FSC's zeal to certify can't, by itself, bring about widespread sustainable forestry.

Heisenbutle: And that's what we should all be about. There's no silver bullet, no one-size-fits-all approach to achieving sustainable forestry. And we're concerned that some organizations, like the Forest Stewardship Council, believe there is a one-size-fits-all.
Oregon lumberman George Fenn, who raises redwood and other timber for profit, is bolder in his criticism. He says the FSC's certification guidelines give the organization too much control over land it doesn't own.
Fenn:All the financial responsibility is borne by the owner, but they're gonna tell him how to manage his land. You can't manage anything by committee - they've got committees all over the place. Every decision you make has to have input from your workers, from the local business people. The radio station doesn't ask everybody's permission before it puts a program on. If you had to do all your work that way you'd never get any work done. It doesn't square with reality.
It does, however, seem to square with a lot of consumers. In 1995, a market survey by the US Forest Service found that 96 percent of mail order catalogues liked the idea of selling certified wood products. Giant firms like Home Depot and the European equivalent, B & Q, have committed to carrying merchandise of certified wood. The CEO of Berkeley Mills Furniture in Berkeley, California, Gene Aggress, says it never hurts to give the customer a reason to feel self-satisfied.
Aggress: My people are well-educated Judeo-Christian types, they wanna do the right thing. Just another step on the way to heaven, right?
Of interest is that the industry group, the American Forest and Paper Association, two years ago drafted a mission statement called the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. It relies on forestry practices not terribly different from the FSC's - tree-planting, protecting water quality, improving biodiversity. Certification proponents say it's un-provable - the work of an industry worried about its image.

Aitkin County's first certified timber harvest will begin later this month.