Posted by on Oct 12, 2013 in Food For Thought |

I Get It

To meet the challenge of learning – and choosing – to use forests without abusing them, we need to create effective, market-based incentives for good forest stewardship.  Markets shape land – and people shape markets.  Because I feel strongly about this, I work, in the ways available to me, to help make this happen, primarily through encouraging the success of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification system.  My involvement ranges from being an early adopter forest owner, a miller and retailer, and an encourager of fellow landowners, to serving as a leader of an organization committed to building new markets, and serving as a policy maker and policy shaper.  My focused determination to see FSC work – for me and for my community – led to a zeal that I now realize limited my ability to pay attention to, and learn, from important information that others were telling me.  I was blind.  I share the following three realizations for reasons beyond their importance to me; I share them because I think they highlight significant flaws in the FSC systems that must be acknowledged and corrected before FSC can succeed as an effective forest conservation strategy.  As long as others share these “blind spots” that I have ignored and denied for years, how will we collectively improve our vision and move rational conservation forestry from a concept to a tangible reality?

In the interest of clarity, I will distill my journey toward awareness into messages I have received from three directions – from customers, from peer forest owners, and from policy makers and agency staff.  In the same way that the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle come together to reveal a more complete picture, each of the interchanges provide an essential dimension or facet of the situation that I believe we must acknowledge and address.


The Customer – She called in hopes that our family forests could provide local, FSC certified wood trim for the house that she was building.  Excited to find that we could provide what she was looking for from our forests in the northern OregonCoastRange, she asked to us to provide specific details and a price quote.  At the end of this process, she explained that she was ready to place an order, but first wanted to investigate one final potential supplier.  When I called her a week later, hoping to close the sale, she explained that she had decided to buy from the other supplier – who fit the same criteria as us in being both local and FSC certified.  Knowing her to be both friendly and communicative I asked her for information on both what had tipped her decision and who was the successful supplier.  She explained that the trim for her new, green home would be coming from the poplar plantations near Boardman, Oregon and that the key factor in her decision was that their price was only a third of the best price that I could offer her.  “Why should I pay more” she asked, “if they are both the same – local and FSC certified – sustainable?”.  My instinct was to tell her that they are not at all the same – the plantations grow a monoculture of non native species in a place that has never had trees, sustained by scarce Columbia River water and significant amounts of chemicals and fertilizers, and harvested in clear cuts larger than the 120 acre maximum allowed by state law, while our mixed age, mixed species native forests need few, if any human inputs, and are logged, following nature’s example, with small openings never larger than five acres.  I held off on pleading the case of difference with her because it was clear that only three things mattered in her decision – local, FSC certified, and as inexpensive as possible.  Yes, the two products are different in terms of how the management approaches influence the common good, but are those differences significant if they don’t influence the product’s competitiveness in the marketplace?  Apparently not.  How can FSC certification fulfill its vision of improving forest stewardship by providing participating landowners with tangible economic incentives for exceeding the minimum legal standards, when local FSC product is entering the marketplace from lands that are managed to the much less stringent FSC plantation standard? Thanking her, I hung up and considered other routes for selling the trim.  The wood has recently been sold to a local wood distributor for an amount that is below our costs of growing and processing it.  The buyer rightly negotiated the purchase price to a level that was low enough to match the level that he judged “the market would bear”.  Our wood now sits in his warehouse side by side with the plantation wood, both with the same label “Local and FSC Certified”.

Realization #1 – Consumers shape markets and their judgment that plantation FSC and native forest FSC wood are the same – local and FSC certified – make our claims that they are different insignificant.  Both are equally rewarded in the marketplace, in spite of the plantation standard detracting from the common good and the native forest standard contributing to the common good.  FSC plantation owners financially benefit from the positive reputation that has been built by owners and supporters of FSC native forests, and the same time that their work erodes our reputation and economic viability.

Fellow Forest Owners – My friends and nearby family forest owners were in the final stages of deciding whether to have their forests FSC certified.  Knowing that our family’s forests had chosen that path over a decade earlier, they sensed a sympathetic ear and shared one concern that gave pause to their final decision.  They related their recent experience in touring an FSC certified pine plantation in New Zealand with its even aged monoculture, managed with intensive chemical use and large scale clear cuts and contrasted it to the much higher standard of stewardship that they were being asked to conform to on their own lands.   They politely asked me to explain and justify a system that has such different standards, but whose outputs were expected to compete in the global wood market place in an equal, undifferentiated way.  I still recall that my lame efforts at explaining were inadequate and unconvincing – to them and to me.

Realization #2 – FSC’s double standard, that sends undifferentiated wood to market, compromises our success in earning the trust, respect, and engagement of forest owners on which the system depends.  A chain made up of two links is only as strong as the weakest link.

As long as this weak link persists, how will we build the critical mass of participation in this region?

Policy Makers and Shapers – Three times in as many months I have found myself encouraging people with responsibility for shaping and making forest policy to consider using FSC certification as a strategy for achieving forest conservation goals.  The first opportunity involved Oregon’s Board of Forestry as we explored ways to improve both revenues from state forest lands and achieve higher levels of citizen support and confidence related to stewardship of the public forests.  The second opportunity came as the diverse “stakeholders” working together to develop a conservation action plan for the Nehalem Watershed in Oregon’s north coast searched for effective ways to reverse the conversion of the watershed’s forests multi value, native forests to short rotation, monoculture plantations.  The final opportunity came as Oregon Department of Forestry staff and advisory group members considered the potential value of market-based conservation incentives to reduce the potential need to implement new regulations in order to maintain land health.  In all three cases my assertions that FSC certification, with its stewardship standards that I perceived to be significantly higher than the state’s legal minimums, could help achieve our goals were either ignored or countered with comments such as: “recent research shows that the standards of all of the main certification systems are essentially the same”, or “how can you say that Peter, when the FSC certified plantations in this state do less for the common good than what is required by the Forest Practices Act?”.  While my zealous instinct has been to fight back with specific examples of how FSC’s native forest standards are not the same as SFI’s or Tree Farm’s, I now see that critics are actually being generous in suggesting that they are the same.  FSC’s power is only as great as its weakest standard, and in my home state this standard is weaker than the state’s legal minimum, and only possible because of the state’s stewardship agreement process provision of exemptions.

Realization #3 – For FSC to have a significant impact in the Pacific Northwest, it must be understood and taken seriously by policy makers.  In my experience, the current hypocritical double standard makes it between difficult and impossible for the system to earn the trust, respect, and engagement of those who set public policy.  I and we cannot afford to continue to pretend that this is not the case.


Because I share the vision that legitimate certification systems can and must play a serious role in making conservation forestry be a viable option for forest owners – private and public – in the Northwest, I will continue to work, in the ways available to me, to make this happen.  My newfound awareness makes me realize that, due to their ineffectiveness, my old approaches of trying to be an evangelical advocate must be replaced by a commitment to advocating for recognition and correction of the internal flaws of FSC in ways that make it possible for the standard to earn essential trust, respect, and engagement in my home region.



Where From Here?  

Personally I see two options for how to move forward.  The best choice is a simple one.  If there is a case to be made for the value of the FSC plantation standard (and I think there is), then there could and should be a clear distinction made as wood enters the marketplace between “FSC/Plantation” and “FSC/Native Forest”.  Contrary to what my customers tell me, they are different and this should be clear to all.  My efforts to encourage this change with colleagues active in FSC’s leadership and management have been met with explanations such as “this would require change on the international scale and that is too big for us to take on…” and “you shouldn’t worry about this because the FSC plantations in Oregon are an anomaly that is not representative of what is going on in the rest of the world…”.  Given my increasing awareness of my own blind spots and denial, I can understand these responses – but I cannot accept them.


If FSC is unwilling to correct these problems, another – less desirable – option is open to those of us committed to seeing effective certification succeed in the Northwest.  If FSC chooses not to differentiate, local growers and processors can make differentiation happen by developing a new standard that uses the FSC native forest standard as a base from which the new, local standard is built.  This types of differentiation parallels the differentiation of the Living Building Challenge program from the LEED certification standard, or the shift in agriculture away from organic standards toward approaches that better suit the current context.  Differentiation is part of the normal, healthy process of systems – ecological and human – evolving to become more functional and resilient.

In spite of my current frustrations with my relative ineffectiveness as an advocate for market-driven forest conservation strategies, I remain optimistic that given our shared goals, terrific forests, good hearted and malleable consumers, and examples of leadership for positive change in local agriculture, we will ultimately craft paths that lead to better options for forest owners and consumers alike.  But it is a path that we must work together to design, blaze, and build.  The adventures shared above aim to make the case that the first step on this path must be an honest assessment of our current context.