Updates & Blog

Supporting Sustainability in the South – Forest Certification and Beyond

Scott Phillips
State Forester
South Carolina Forestry Commission
Man singing documents, being assisted by park ranger.

Approximately 86% of the South’s 212 million acres of forestland is privately owned, making it the nation’s stronghold for private forest ownership. These forest owners understand that sustainable forest management is key to maintaining healthy forests, protecting surrounding natural resources and habitats, and maintaining economic viability of their lands. While sustainable forest management has always been a priority of forest owners, the development of forest certification programs in recent decades has provided an opportunity to validate to the public, and those sourcing wood products, that their forests are responsibly managed. While traditional forest certification programs continue to play an important role, other programs have emerged that document sustainable management in other ways. Demand is growing, especially in many international markets, for certification of a wide range of wood products – from paper to bio-energy. For example, European bio-electricity markets sourcing wood pellets from the southeastern United States are requesting sustainability assurances for their feedstocks, including both traditional forest certification and other risk mitigation approaches. Additionally, domestic consumers are increasingly considering the environmental and societal impacts of their purchasing decisions and demanding more “green” labeling.

Helping landowners make and document sustainable management decisions is one of the key functions of state forestry agencies. To best support our southern forests and the southern landowner base, state agencies make sure boots-on-the-ground forestry staff are prepared to help landowners understand and navigate the full sustainability picture, including but not limited to forest certification. We also play an important ambassador role to educate policymakers and consumers about the realities of forest certification in our region, especially as it relates to other sustainability documentation approaches. With these two goals in mind, SGSF recently released a 2021 report update to SGSF Forest Certification Programs – Status and Recommendations in the South.

The report shows that approximately 36.3 million acres of southern forests are certified to at least one of three domestic forest certification programs – ATFS (American Tree Farm Standard), FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) and SFI (Sustainable Forestry Initiative®). SFI is the most widely accessed program in our region but all three play important roles in the fabric of documenting sustainability. As noted in the report, the National Association of State Foresters has indicated that, “forest ecosystems are complex and a simplistic ‘one size fits all’ approach to certification cannot address all sustainability needs…in different manners, all three systems include the fundamental elements of credibility and make positive contributions to forest sustainability.”

However, the data in our report also shows that these certified lands represent only 19% of total private timberland acres in the South. Does this mean the other 81% are not being managed sustainably? Not at all! The absence of certification does not automatically indicate a lack of sustainable management. While forest certification programs provide an easy way for retailers and customers to verify sustainability of a product, the certification process for the landowner, who grows and harvests the timber, may not be quite as simple. Certification programs can be cumbersome and expensive, especially in the South where much of private forest ownership is made up of small, family landowners with limited resources and budgets. Additionally, forest certification has yet to yield widespread improved market access or enhanced stumpage pricing for program participants, so there is often little tangible incentive for smaller landowners to participate. If entry barriers to forest certification programs remain too onerous and certification is perceived as the only metric of sustainability, the market could unintentionally shut out smaller southern landowners.

To address this issue, state forestry agencies are working closely with each of our certification partners to improve program accessibility for smaller landowners, and document and showcase all the good management that goes on in our region. Equally important to the sustainability picture, alongside getting individual landowners enrolled in forest certification, is funding robust implementation of programs that ensure and document sustainability at the landscape level, such as forestry BMPs that protect water quality and FIA data that shows our forests are expanding and not declining. For consumers of southern forest products, it is important to know that state forestry agencies work closely with forest owners day-to-day and have observed that they are, by-and-large, making sustainable management choices and taking good care of our forestland – whether they are participating in a forest certification program or not.