March 21 is International Day of the Forests, established by the United Nations in 2012. The day celebrates and raises awareness with events around the world to recognize how important the planet’s forests are, and in part to remind people why and how forests are integral to sustainable development. At Forest America, we know that sustainable forests are integral to our community of private landowners. In simplified terms, sustainability is managing our forests so that they will continue to serve as a valuable resource for the nation and for landowners.
Unfortunately, not all nations have the outstanding record of stewardship that we have in the United States, and this causes a great deal of confusion and misguided policies that actually threaten our forests more than protects them. The reason is that certification requirements being enacted to protect and preserve forests in third-world nations are viewed as being necessary for sustainability of our forests as well. While deforestation is occurring in other countries, in the US we have been maintaining our forests sustainably for over 100 years, long before certification organizations ever even came into existence.
Unfortunately, this blanket approach that all forests around the world must be certified to be sustainable is causing unintended consequences by incentivizing companies to buy wood for their products from less environmentally friendly countries instead of using U.S. wood.
Here’s the problem. The majority of U.S. wood products are from forests that are owned and managed by private landowners who are not enrolled in a certification program, and thus are viewed by markets, environmental organizations and other countries needing our wood supply as needing to meet the same certification requirements as third world growers. Certification is absolutely necessary and important for developing nations, who have a history of poor land management and whose national or local governments do not have strong sustainable practices. They also may be employing underage labor or using labor practices that are not approved.
In contrast, U.S. privately-owned forests grow in an environment where there is a strong rule of law and stewardship principles that protect our natural resources. Private landowners have demonstrated sustainable forestry for more than a hundred years. Sustainable forestry on these lands is ensured largely by the strong rule of law in place in the U.S., and this has been reinforced through the highly successful implementation of best management practices. The reality here is that additional assurances simply aren’t necessary. We have strong labor laws and we actually have more forest acreage now than we did 50 years ago. In Georgia last year we grew 20 million more tons of wood than was harvested.
Our challenge, and the challenge for all private forest owners, is that we have a great sustainability story that isn't well-known. Most people don’t think about the landowner in terms of sustainability, they just think about the forests. Well, who the heck do you think pays for the management and taxes of these private forests that provide so many benefits to society?
We have to do a better job of telling the story that what sustains our forests is not more laws and regulations, but private landowners who have certainty and access to free and open markets for their wood. We must get these corporate sustainability policies to recognize that we need to use more U.S.-harvested wood rather than searching for alternatives. In one recent example, a major clothing manufacturer was researching the use of straw fibers for its clothing rather than fibers from wood because they thought this would be better for the forests. It’s really the opposite. Using straw fibers would have a detrimental impact rather than a positive effect on sustainability because the fewer market opportunities available to private forests, the lower the prices they can command and the less incentive to maintain those forests.
Certification for private forest landowners in the US is not needed nor is it the answer for sustainability of our forests. What we do need are strong, open, free economic markets. U.S. wood is the best label that anyone could use if they really care about sustainable forests.
Strong markets ensure healthy forests. Therefore we must work to achieve policies that address the concern of transparency in the global wood supply chain while also recognizing the framework of laws, regulations and Best Management Practices in the United States that have ensured the sustainability of our private working forests for more than a century.