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Forest Stewardship Council certification for small forests

Rhys Millar, New Zealand Tree Grower November 2017.

Certification for small-scale forests has been something which needs sorting out for a number of years. This article is a very useful summary of recent progress, with a little bit of optimism that one day soon it may be practical to have your forest FSC certified with the associated benefits.

Forest environmental certification is a market mechanism which allows customers and wood buyers to have sustainable forest management practices without using the bluntness of imposed boycotts. The most recognised forest environmental certification scheme in New Zealand and globally is the Forest Stewardship Council, usually referred to by its acronym FSC. 

Other schemes, such as the Programme for Endorsement of Forest Certification or PEFC, are also important certification options but have not been so readily accepted by the large environmental non-governmental organisations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. As a result, they have not been so readily accepted by consumers. The industry and global consumer awareness of FSC, and the marketing power of the brand, will ensure that it stays as the primary forest certification scheme in New Zealand for at least the foreseeable future. 

For the New Zealand forest sector, environmental certification has become important for market access. For owners of medium and large forests operating in this country, FSC certification has become part of daily business practice, providing security of access to export markets. This is demonstrated by the New Zealand Forest Owners Association assessment that currently the management of over one million of the 1.8 million hectares of plantation forest in New Zealand is FSC certified.

Where do small-scale owners fit in?

Due to the widespread and rapid uptake of the FSC certification scheme by the plantation forestry industry, growers of small forests in some regions have felt pressure to follow suit. In some places, the wood processing sector is experiencing high demand for FSC certified products and is requesting that all forest growers supply them with the FSC logs. 

In 2009, the NZFFA commissioned a study to try and understand how the small-scale forest grower would be affected by certification and how growers could become certified. This study found that wood processors were increasing their demand for FSC certified logs. Handling non-certified logs was becoming problematic for some mills due to the significant cost attached to managing two lines of logs. 

There are already cases of forest growers being unable to sell logs to local processing plants due to the lack of forest certification. Similarly, some processors are only buying non-FSC logs at a discounted price. There were examples cited in which forest owners in close proximity to sawmills, closer than 20 kilometres, being forced to transport logs to alternative mills over 100 kilometres away due to their lack of certification. 

There are also many situations where the regional demand for FSC is minimal and of little importance to small-scale forest growers. It is a situation of each grower needing to evaluate their own marketplace to determine the relevance of certification.

More relevance for certification

Certification is likely to increase in relevance in the future as log buyers have a greater selection of forests to choose from. With most of the future expansion in log supply coming from small-scale forest growers, there is potential for a buyers’ market to develop. Log-buyer preference will be given to volume, quality of logs and records of quality control. 

Forest accessibility, efficiency of harvest, and ability to supply the market specifications will be the main requirements for market access. FSC certification of logs and their products is one of the main specifications that, in some markets, will need to be met by the forest grower. In a marketplace flush with logs, small-scale forest growers will benefit if they can provide the wood-processing sector with what they demand. 

Such forest growers will retain market access and will not suffer from the potential discounting of non-FSC certified logs. Just as important, these small-scale growers will not suffer from being excluded from the processing plants which are close to their forest. 

Gaining certification 

Owners of medium and large forests have the resources and in-house expertise to manage the requirements of FSC certification and have built this into their daily management systems. 

Historically, small-scale forest growers have not had sufficient market incentive to obtain certification. For the small-scale grower with a limited harvestable forest resource, the premiums or additional access to the markets which could have resulted from having certification have traditionally been insufficient to justify the cost and time attached to the certification procedure. 

There are a number of barriers for small-scale forest owners that contribute to the lack of uptake of FSC certification. For example, there is not enough available information about what is required by forest owners. The jargon-filled legalistic speak of the FSC principles and criteria, and of the interim New Zealand standard, have also been a barrier. However, for small-scale forest owners the main barrier to obtaining FSC certification is cost. This includes the direct cost of certification and the indirect costs attached to achieving compliance to the certification standards. 

The only option currently available for small-scale forest owners is by a group certification scheme. This is an adaptation of the same scheme used by large forest growers, but has not considered many of the concerns relevant to the small-scale grower. Its significant cost forms another barrier. 

Possible trade barrier 

The NZFFA is aware that members are increasingly likely to be disadvantaged in the future without access to an effective certification procedure. Without a suitable method for small-scale forest growers to gain FSC certification, there is a threat that certification could amount to a trade barrier. 

FSC International has also recognised this threat and in recent years has developed the Small and Low Intensity Managed Forests initiative. This allows for the development of streamlined FSC certification procedures that will reduce the cost of obtaining certification for small-scale forest owners. Forest management standards can be developed which are simple and easy to interpret. Auditing requirements are also significantly reduced. The initiative aims to provide more cost-effective methods for small scale forest owners to complete the requirements of FSC certification. 

The NZFFA have determined that gaining FSC certification by way of a Small and Low Intensity Managed Forests group scheme will be achievable for small-scale forest growers. The growers would need to manage their plantations and farms in an integrated manner which enforces the principles of sustainable land management. 

In some cases, significant changes to forest management will be required as a part of being FSC certified. These are most notably, but not limited to, the active management of indigenous biodiversity and the need to undertake rigorous social and environmental impact assessments, as well as consulting with local stakeholders. The NZFFA is currently developing system that will allow members to gain FSC certification in a cost-effective manner. 

National standard for certification 

The FSC Principles and Criteria for Forest Stewardship provide an internationally recognised standard for responsible forest management. However, any international standard for forest management needs to be adapted at the regional or national level to reflect the diverse legal, social and geographical conditions of forests in different parts of the world. 

The FSC principles and criteria therefore require indicators that are adapted to regional or national conditions so that they can be implemented at the forest management unit level. The principles and criteria, together with a set of indicators accredited by FSC, constitute an FSC Standard. The national standard establishes the required elements against which FSC accredited certification organisations will evaluate forest management practices within the context of New Zealand plantations. 

In November 2009, a group representing most plantation forest owners, major environmental organisations along with social and Maori interests decided to form a Standard Development Group and re-commence standard development in accordance with FSC procedures. This had previously been abandoned in 2003 because there was too much disagreement on a number of points. 

It was agreed by the Standard Development Group that small-scale forest growers would be represented by the Economic Chamber of the group, and that a set of indicators would be developed which are specific to small and low intensity managed forests. This has resulted in requirements for managers of these forests which are less onerous and more applicable to the scale of forest management in place. It was also agreed that Small and Low Intensity Managed Forests would be defined by forest area up to 1000 hectares in size.

Current status

In 2012, the FSC Board of Directors decided that a set of international generic indicators was needed so as to ensure the consistent application of the FSC principles and criteria across the globe. This process was necessary to improve and strengthen the credibility of the FSC system. 

With a collective sigh, the New Zealand Standards Development Group has accepted this directive and is steadfastly working through the development of the new standard. For the NZFFA it has provided an opportunity to push for further changes in the way that small forest owners are managed within FSC. The NZFFA and the Economic Chamber have been supported by the Environmental and Social Chambers to develop a third tier of forest size. Subject to public consultation, the third tier will focus on small forests of less than 100 hectares. This forest size is often the domain of farm foresters. The small forests’ will be able to meet the requirements of FSC using more abbreviated and streamlined procedures, reflecting their limited capacity.

Ecological integrity

One previous area of contention which was of particular relevance to small-scale forest growers is that of reserves or set-asides. It has been agreed that small-scale forest owners and farm foresters often lead the implementation of sustainable land management initiatives. For example, planting erosion prone slopes and protecting waterways are two commonly used activities that deserve support from the certification system process itself. 

During the development of the national standard, the NZFFA therefore negotiated for greater flexibility in the reserve contributions. Being able to include land use activities such as shelterbelts, planted riparian forest areas and continuous cover forest management as reserves reflects the Standard Development Group’s recognition of the role that small forests have to play in sustainable land management. They also ensure that the ecological integrity of the standard is retained. 

It has also been recognised that it is appropriate for farm foresters, a subset of small-scale forest growers, to use their whole properties to meet the reserve requirements of the standard. That is, rather than simply assessing a farm’s woodlots in isolation from the remainder of the farm, a whole-of-property method is suitable when considering reserves management.

The current National Standard was ready for public consultation in September, with the main change from the previous standard being the inclusion of this third tier of small forest class. 

This is significant progress for small-scale forest owners, and I encourage you to support these changes when consultation is required. Forest certification is not going away, and in reality, will begin to increasingly effect small-scale forest owners, particularly as downstream processors increase their demands for more of their log supply to be FSC certified. Given that all major New Zealand forest owners are FSC certified, only the owners of smaller forests will be affected by this increasing demand.

The future

It is considered that a Small and Low Intensity Managed Forests group certification scheme will be the most cost-effective and helpful method for small-scale forest growers wanting to become FSC certified. Group certificates will be held by an individual entity such as the NZFFA, which as the group certificate holder is accountable for the group’s compliance against the New Zealand standard. 

There is a need for direct accountability from the individual group members to the group certificate holder. This holder must monitor the forest management of every landowner for compliance with the group’s systems, policies and ultimately the FSC principles and criteria. 

Given the position of the NZFFA as not-for-profit operating for the benefit of its members, it is in an excellent position to develop a Small and Low Intensity Managed Forests group certification scheme. Certification could provide increased benefits to at least some of its members. 

The group’s certificate would be managed by the NZFFA’s appointed group manager whose responsibility would be to manage the consistency and integrity of the scheme and to ensure that individual forest managers are managing their forests to a high standard. The web-based system will underpin this scheme, allowing group members and the group manager to be able to complete the requirements of FSC, and also to easily demonstrate the correct management.

Rhys Millar is Director of Ahika Consulting Ltd in Dunedin


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