For the Environment, or For Money?

Leaders trying desperately to restore healthy forests and rebuild the forestry economy need all the help they can get, but they may be facing another major setback instead. Part of the restoration effort requires developing new products and new markets for the millions of tons of material that must be removed from our national forests, but any cutting of any tree of any kind in any place faces stiff opposition from environmental organizations, and that impasse has cost tens of thousands of jobs, millions of dollars in litigation, and several thousand homes lost to catastrophic wildfires that have destroyed over 68 million acres of forests in the last 10 years. It is a dire situation that must be addressed with utmost urgency.

One tool for reducing the political difficulty forestry faces is a growing use of the term “certified,” which simply gives consumers a way to know that forest products they use were produced in a sustainable way, using standards designed to restore forests, not destroy them. There are “certified” building materials available in many markets, and there are a growing number of “certified forests” from which such products are taken. It is a very appealing strategy, and could be used even more extensively, as a way to re-assure the public of a pro-active agenda based on healthy forests. If most of our national forests were certified in that manner, the volume could be turned way down on some of the most contentious forestry decisions, and this would provide the public with a way to support healthy forests directly with their consumer dollars, rather than giving to environmental groups whose agendas are less transparent.

The tool has become so effective that there is now a raging controversy about who gets to decide what forests, companies, and products can be certified. A number of groups combine conservationists, industry representatives, and governments to create consensus standards and certify forests and practices as sustainable. Participation is voluntary, but the market for certified products creates strong incentives for better forest management. Today, forty percent of the world’s certified forests are in North America and the number is growing. But one heavy-handed organization called the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC, based in Germany) is trying to become the only recognized standard in the U.S. – even resorting to threats of boycotts and regulatory mandates to ensure that it gets all the money and power associated with being the keeper of the worldwide standard.

The American Consumer Institute’s Center for Citizen Research has just published a study on the “Monopolization of Forest Certification,” with powerful facts illustrating how such a monopoly would not only increase consumer costs, but actually undermine sustainability. See the full study here: http://www.theamericanconsumer.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Certification-Study-FINAL.pdf.

The problem is that there is no common standard for determining what is sustainable and healthy in different climates or different forest types. A blatant attempt to establish a monopoly on certification, and to substitute mandates for voluntary compliance and consumer choice, illustrates perfectly how the environmental movement has so lost its way that is frequently hurting the environment. Certification requires payment of fees, and monopoly always leads to higher fees. Such money and power would be a boon to the FSC, but a significant disincentive to forestry companies already teetering on the edge of economic viability.

It gets worse for American forests. The FSC has negotiated and compromised at the local level in ways that create significantly easier standards in many countries than in the U.S. For example, the size of clearcuts allowed in many U.S. and Canadian forests is smaller than that allowed in many countries, and some (Russia, Brazil, New Zealand) have no limits at all. So as the study points out, “by compromising from country to country, different standards are developed for the same certification process. As a result, differences in FSC standards affect the cost of timber and ultimately consumer prices.”

In the end, it is the environment that will suffer most if we fail to provide the strongest possible market incentives for restoring healthy forests. Should forest “sustainability” standards be set by communities of diverse experts working together to improve the forest, or sold to anyone willing to pay the fees and submit to the authority of these would-be forest police?

 

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