We are talking about third party certification. This means that all aspects of the forestry operation are evaluated by an objective third party, i.e. not forest owners themselves or those interested in buying their timber. It works like an audit of business accounts and activities. It is done by a trustworthy independent firm or individuals, trained to know what good standards. The certifiers make judgments based on specific criteria. In the case of a business they are assessing financial health. Are the practices of management honest and effective? Will the business have a reasonable chance of surviving and thriving? Passing the audit doesn’t automatically prove that everything is great, but it gives everyone a reasonable basis on which to judge and make decisions. An audit does indeed help to catch people who are cheating, but its better, its higher purpose is to give owners and managers the information and tools they need to improve performance. Forest certification has many of the same purposes.
Responsible forest owners want to make a profit but only if it can be done in ways that sustain and improve the health of their land and the environment around it. That is why they embrace better methods and search for sustainable solutions. But in this ever-changing world, how can know we are doing the right things right, if our best intentions are producing the best outcomes? How do you know we are doing what is right in the bigger picture? And if we are succeeding, how will others know? Certification helps with all of this.
The American Tree Farm System (ATFS) was the world’s first third party certification scheme when it was founded in 1941 and it has been helping forest landowners practice and perfect good forestry for more than seventy-five years. A lot has changed since 1941, America Tree Farm System is now sponsored by the American Forest Foundation, but its commitment to sustainability endured as more people became interested in forest sustainability. Other certification schemes came on the scene in the 1990s. Major certifiers active in the U.S. today are Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). In addition, a worldwide organization that essentially certifies the certifiers is Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification Schemes (PEFC). PEFC endorsed SFI in 2005.
All certification schemes share the similar goal of sustainable forestry and protecting ecosystems, and on the ground, there is little difference among them. FSC has some advantages in protecting indigenous rights in tropical forests. Among the certification schemes in North America, ATFS is best suited to individual forest owners because it is inexpensive to get and stay certified (Tree Farm inspections are free to the landowner and usually can be completed in a day) and because it promotes goals in ways that owners of small or medium forest tracts can accomplish. In other words, Tree Farm provides the flexibility that smaller, non-professional owners need.
Ensuring wood and wood product come from sources that we know to be practicing sustainable forestry, while protecting wildlife, soil and water resources is becoming increasingly important to consumers of wood product. It has always been important to responsible landowners. It is probably a good thing to have a diversity of certification plans to provide choices for a variety of needs. For me, and for most small operators like me, ATFS is the best way to go. Others with different needs might make other choices. All of us share the same goal of good forestry. There are many good paths to this destination.