Stamped and Certified
It's official: Minnesota's nearly 5 million acres of state-owned forest land is certified for sustainable management.
By Mary Hoff
Photography by Tom Thulen
How do you know that the new toaster you plug in isn't going to burn the house down? That the box of cereal you open for breakfast won't be full of weevil wings? That the lumber you buy to build a porch isn't compromising the health of our forests?
A big part of the quality of products, and therefore our quality of life, depends on inspection and certification—the process through which independent experts assess something and then vouch for its integrity.
When lumber from Minnesota state forests goes to market, it now bears two official seals of approval. These seals indicate that Minnesota's 4.8 million acres of state-owned forests are being managed to sustain both current and future use—for timber, wildlife habitat, water quality, and healthy ecosystems. Last December the Department of Natural Resources was awarded certification of sustainable management by the Forest Stewardship Council and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, two leading international organizations established to help give people who buy forest products a way to judge and reward good forest management.
Forest certification is intended to act like the consumer-quality inspection practices that ensure your toaster won't burn down the house. An FSC or SFI stamp on a two- by-four-inch board in a lumberyard means that piece of wood came from a sustainably managed forest.
"Forest certification is an important assurance to Minnesotans and all who use and enjoy these forests that sustainable forestry in Minnesota will prevail," said David Epperly, director of the DNR Division of Forestry.
Forest certification in Minnesota is a validation that the DNR is doing many things right in managing state forests, and an incentive to do some things better. Some people question whether it will solve all the forest management issues in Minnesota, but most agree it's a step in the right direction.
Beyond the Trees
The idea of certifying forests took root in the early 1990s amid concerns about exploitation of forest resources around the world. In 1993 a group of environmentalists, business people, and human rights advocates created the FSC as a way to insert some independent accountability into forest management.
The council developed a list of standard forestry practices it deemed sustainable and set up a process for independently certifying forest lands on which they were met. The standards don't prohibit harvest, or even specific harvest practices such as clear-cutting. But they do aim to ensure that managers maintain the integrity of the forest ecosystem, protect the local economy, and respect human needs.
"It goes beyond the trees," said DNR forest certification coordinator Andrew Arends. "Do you protect indigenous peoples' rights? Do you protect the forest from illegal use by ATVs? Are lands set aside with high conservation value— old-growth forests, extended rotation forests, scientific and natural areas?"
In the years that followed the formation of FSC, big corporations that buy tons of wood and paper started to seek certified products. The Home Depot, the world's largest lumber retailer, began preferentially purchasing certified wood in 1999. In 2003 Time Warner Inc. announced plans to buy 80 percent of the paper it uses for publishing—some 600,000 tons per year—from certified forests. McDonald's, Andersen Corp., Aveda, IKEA, and Starbucks, among others, now request certified forest products from their suppliers. So do city governments in Chicago and Portland, Ore. (And yes, the magazine you're holding is printed on paper produced from trees harvested from certified lands.)
As demand grew, more and more forest products firms began to supply certified products. And more and more forest managers began to pursue certification. In May 2003 a DNR team recommended dual certification of its forest lands, which comprise a quarter of all forest lands in the state. Later in the year, a task force set up by Gov. Tim Pawlenty identified certification of DNR lands in Minnesota as a valuable tool for encouraging forest products industries to continue investing in the state.
"It will be an increasing advantage to industry to operate from states or countries with high proportions of certified land base," the task force stated in its report to the governor. "By aggressively pursuing certification of forest land, Minnesota can sustain its existing advantage in domestic markets." With funding from the Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources, the DNR sought certification under both FSC, which is favored by environmentalists, and SFI, which was established by the forest products industry.
During the past two years, DNR land managers have had to prove they meet some 300 specific standards on nearly 5 million acres. Some of the questions they have had to answer: Do they involve the public in forest management planning? Do they protect old-growth forests? Do they require loggers to avoid damaging soils and wetlands? Do they manage for a variety of successional stages, age classes, and tree species?
To find the answers, six audit team members combed through mounds of forest management records. They spoke to DNR foresters and managers, supporters, and critics. In 10 days they traveled 4,500 miles to look at sites protected from harvest, slated for harvest, recovering from harvest, or in the process of being harvested. They met with hundreds of citizens, loggers, and DNR staff.
When it was all done, the auditors recommended both FSC and SFI certification.
In the Right Direction
Forest certification is already making a difference for Minnesota. One big benefit has been increased confidence by the state's forest products industry in its ability to meet demand for certified wood.
"It's a very positive move," said Tim O'Hara, Minnesota Forest Industries vice president of forest policy. "This will give people the reassurance the resource is being managed sustainably and will be there now and into the future." Certification also provides valuable feedback—a pat on the back—on what the DNR is doing right. Auditors commended the agency for positive practices, such as encouraging small businesses; managing for recreation, wildlife, water quality, and biodiversity as well as timber production; not planting nonnative species or genetically modified trees; using integrated pest management to keep forests healthy; and minimizing sizes of clear-cuts.
"The state of Minnesota did a superb job of demonstrating that they're managing these lands in a sustainable fashion," said Mike Ferrucci, lead auditor for SFI certification. "You have a strong land management program in Minnesota and really one that folks should be proud of."
Even more important, certification yielded specific recommendations and strong incentives for doing things even better. Along with the kudos came 19 corrective action requests, changes DNR will have to make over the next two years for the certification to stick (see Room for Improvement, page 24).
A major concern for the auditors was the use of off-highway vehicles on state forest land. OHVs are recreational vehicles such as ATVs, off-highway motorcycles, four-wheel-drive trucks, and Jeeps. The auditors saw signs of OHV damage at several sites they visited. To stay certified, the DNR must make sure it has the resources to finish designating state forest trails as open or closed to OHVs by 2008 and to improve its enforcement of OHV rules and regulations.
Another requirement: The DNR must complete subsection forest resource management plans, which will form the basis for managing all DNR forest lands. FSC has asked DNR to finish the plans by the end of 2007, or face losing certification.
Both problems, the auditors said, are linked to a lack of people power. "There are definitely some overstretched staff, much more so than some other public agencies we've seen," FSC lead auditor Dave Wager said. "We'll be watching closely to make sure resources are there to get both those monumental jobs done."
People who care about Minnesota's forest lands are mostly pleased with the dual certification and appreciate the encouragement SFI and FSC give to the DNR to move forward in key areas.
"It's definitely a plus," said Janet Green, who represents environmental groups on the Minnesota Forest Resources Council. "You have all these complex requirements and then you have recertification, so it's a constant accountability."
Shawn Perich, who represents game-species management groups on the council, is concerned that certification focuses too much on timber production and not enough on sustaining habitat. "Sustainable forestry just means you can continue growing trees on the site," he said. "Does it sustain habitat for ruffed grouse? We don't know that. Does it sustain habitat for moose? We don't know that."
DNR forest ecologist Kurt Rusterholz agrees certification isn't a panacea for every problem Minnesota's forests face. But he's convinced it's a move in the right direction.
"I think certification right now offers the best hope for long-term sustainability," he said. "There definitely will be challenges, and I think we're going to try to meet them. We have made a commitment, and I trust we're going to do our best to follow through."
Mary Hoff is a freelance science writer and frequent contributor to this magazine.