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Forest certification What is involved for you?

Kit Richards, New Zealand Tree Grower November 2013.

The preceding article on this topic has covered much of the background to the development of Forest Stewardship Council in New Zealand, and of the New Zealand FSC standard. This article delves a little more into one view about the specific practicalities which confront owners of smaller forests.

Certification is about forest management quality assurance, and in particular, a balanced management which considers environmental, social, cultural and economic performance as a unit – the triple or quadruple bottom line concept. Originally, FSC was conceived on the basis that consumer market signals would change preferences and log price returns, benefiting forest owners who could prove good management.

That particular objective has proved elusive in New Zealand. Instead, certification is mainly recognised as a means to protect market access in export-dominated markets. In these markets increasing volumes of available certified logs and timber provide an easy point of difference between otherwise similar and competitively priced commodities.

Although the market signals get to the forest grower as a market preference or specification, they have tended to be mostly due to the high-value solid wood segments where consumers actually see and sometimes make choices based on more than price. At the other end, the environmental procurement policy of international business has led to strong signals in the pulp, paper and packaging area.

In between, and especially in New Zealand, structural products end up as invisible elements in buildings and have been slow to follow. A lack of institutional leadership, such as government procurement policies and weak and somewhat distorted signals from green labelling schemes such as the Green Building Council, have not helped.

Why certify?

Currently for the small-scale forest owner in New Zealand, apart from altruistic reasons, a decision to certify will be based on the market they believe, or are advised, they will be confronting by the time of harvest. For some, the business may not exist and certification will not be for them. However, there are trends at play which all forest owners need to keep in mind

  • Although only FSC is currently available in New Zealand, there are other very widely recognised systems in the world, especially those falling under the umbrella of the Programme for Endorsement of Forest Certification, known as the PEFC
  • Certified area continues to increase under all schemes around the world, and at 419 million hectares, FSC and PEFC are filtering into customer supply chains, including Australia
  • If large proportions of the supply to a regional processor are available as certified input, eventually the complexities and costs involved in running dual or mixed inventory and output streams may lead processors to go for total certified input
  • Market demands for proof of legality or proof of responsible sourcing, even if not certified, are blossoming globally. Recent legislation in Australia is the latest which will directly affect New Zealand exports to that significant market, and certification may serve one of those proofs.

The practical hurdles

While each certification scheme has its particular points of differentiation and supporters, they all have many features in common. Like most things in forestry, economies of scale apply. The New Zealand standard recognises the small and low intensity managed forest concept, to simplify the obligations for small forests. However the basic certification requirements still apply. On a like-for-like basis the smaller the forest, the higher the unit costs per hectare of certification, whether accounted in monetary terms or personal time devoted to the process.

A plantation under 1,000 hectares meets the small and low intensity managed forest criteria. However, an imaginary cost curve would remain relatively flat and low until the forest area starts to drop below about 200 hectares and steepens as the area becomes smaller. Unfortunately for the farm forester, it is the less than 200 hectare scale that most operate in.

Reserves set-asides

The New Zealand FSC standard means that in any ecological district in New Zealamd within which a forest is located, an equivalent of 10 per cent of the area of the productive forest must be set aside as reserves. For forests set within a substantially pastoral landscape, usually defined by the events of history, such indigenous reserve options may be limited. To help overcome this problem there are some alternative options designed to help.

Anyone considering certification should understand their options from an early stage. Fortunately for some farmers, one method may be to instigate programmes of farm riparian or wetland restoration, gully stabilisation or retirement that they may have been planning. Sometimes they may even be able to find financial assistance.

Significant ecosystems

Inherent to the whole philosophy behind certification is that sites of ecological cultural or historical importance will be given protection. In New Zealand, this is now mostly covered under the Resource Management Act 1991. However, it is possible that even a small forest might contain rare or threatened species, rare ecosystems or important cultural or historic sites. These may require more specific management interventions.

Recognising, planning and implementing any requirements could add costs and require professional expertise. If such situations arise, financial help could be organised, but early identification of the likelihood of a problem arising is important.

The management plan

The required management plan is one of those elements which can most influence the start-up cost of getting certified. There is a significant number of elements of the FSC certification standard which must be addressed in a management plan including descriptions of the forest, its reserves and management, and access for recreation and monitoring of operations. These aspects can be incorporated into a single report or addressed via separate documents and complementary systems and processes.

In theory, while a plan for a small and low intensity managed forest may be simplified and smaller, the basic elements must still be considered. This will usually take some time, effort and a degree of research, as well as on-site knowledge. This effort in time and direct cost can still reach into the low thousands of dollars, and as a one-off cost over a small block may be quite high. However the cost may easily be recovered at harvest.


Another concept, somewhat foreign in the context of private land use management, is the requirement that the main stakeholders be consulted. Every forest will be different in terms of who might constitute a stakeholder with an interest in how you manage your forest.

Very often, for a small simple farm forest where neighbourly relations are good, the process of identifying and consulting stakeholders will be quite smooth and simple. For any number of reasons however, consultation can occasionally be very difficult and early consideration of any potential problems should be factored in.

Those infernal records

Certification imposes a whole new realm of record-keeping in addition to the normal records of operations undertaken in forest stands. For an individual small forest, the intensity will be low, especially during the mid-rotation phases. However records must be kept and retained in a ‘durable’ form. This is where the power of a group scheme that includes centralised data records management comes into its own.

Records will include operational environmental monitoring, incident recording, threatened or rare species records, chemical use records, ecological management operations, records of consultation and other matters. While any manual records system can suffice, developing the processes around what is recorded, as well the formats and means of record management, can be a time-consuming process. This can be streamlined under a group scheme where these matters can be established and standardised.

The cost

For the small-scale forest owner, the single most compelling problem is cost. Certification is not free. While some cost can be reduced by personal effort, a significant cost which cannot be avoided is the annual audit. It is here that the second strength of the group scheme comes into play. The sharing of costs of audit, provided there are enough members, can lead to significant reductions which are unlikely to be able to be improved upon by anyone trying to go it alone.

A certified world

If you intend to maintain your forest into the future and can meet the certification criteria, any decision to certify is ultimately down to your world-view and personal circumstances. What seems clear is that some sort of environmental performance verification will increasingly be required with your product. The only question will be when, under what criteria, and how fast will the landscape continue to change. Group certification and some professional advice is one way to help manage the hurdles.

Kit Richards is Environment Manager for PF Olsen Ltd, a forestry services provider headquartered in Rotorua but with branches in most regions of New Zealand.


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