From the inside, 250 acres of forest can feel like quite a lot of land. Imagine wandering through 190 fully wooded football fields on foot, nearly 13 miles long if laid end to end.
But from the perspective of the Forest Stewardship Council, the world’s leading certifier of sustainable forestry, 250 acres is almost too small to notice, even though plots of that size or less make up approximately 75% of the more than 128 million acres of privately owned forest in the Southeast. The FSC’s lowest certification fee, about $3,000, applies to any forest of 2,470 acres or less.
Given the expense and big-forest focus of FSC certification, says Andrew Goldberg of the Rainforest Alliance’s Asheville-based Appalachian Woodlands Alliance project, less than 0.1% of all small woodlands are currently certified as responsibly managed. That’s a concern for forest products companies such as Evergreen Packaging, which sources roughly 90% of the raw timber for its Canton pulp mill from smallholders and is seeing increased consumer demand for certified products.
The Smallholder Access Program, a collaboration among the Rainforest Alliance, FSC and several forestry corporations announced in June, is exploring how to bring those previously overlooked forest parcels into certified status. The two-year pilot program will certify up to 7,400 acres of small private forests across Western North Carolina and other parts of the Southern Appalachians.
“In our region, there’s been a legacy of exploitation from the forest product industry — exploitation in a neutral sense, but also exploitation in a more value-driven sense,” Goldberg says. “We’ve tried to find a role for progressive forest product companies that they can fill and help landowners.”
The right fit
Central to the SAP, Goldberg says, is a streamlined set of certification criteria. Under the current FSC model, landowners are evaluated on the success of their ongoing forest management, with regular checkups on key indicators of forest health.
But many smallholders, Goldberg explains, leave their lands to nature until a once-in-a-generation harvest. Therefore, the SAP forgoes what he calls the “babysitter model” of certification to concentrate on ensuring good forestry at the moment when trees are felled. Those best practices include checking for endangered species, properly constructing logging roads and leaving a stand of trees to regenerate the forest.
“Everyone has social and environmental values in the forest, and a lot of those are public values. A landowner will do almost nothing to impact those values until they harvest,” Goldberg says. “We’re focusing on the critical intervention that has the most impact on what’s going to happen to our region in the future.”
Richard Taylor Jr., the forest certification manager at Columbia Forest Products, which operates a plywood manufacturing plant in Old Fort, says that approach makes sense in the Southern Appalachians. Because the region’s forests are generally healthy on a macro level, he says, the SAP can reduce certification costs for small plots by zeroing in on harvest time.
“I’ve heard some people say, ‘Well, it’s a watered-down approach,’” Taylor says. “We’re not watering down anything. We’re just saying that a lot of this [good forest dynamic] already happens, so we don’t have to worry about tracking and managing it that way.”
Business partners in the SAP will offer both financial and technical support for smallholders. Derric Brown, director of sustainability for Evergreen Packaging, says his company will help participants develop a harvest plan, have their properties evaluated after harvest and complete all required paperwork for FSC certification — all at no cost to the landowner.
That investment, Brown continues, has benefits both for the environment and Evergreen’s bottom line. “First, we want to be sure that we continue to improve responsible forest practices out there and that landowners are doing the right things on the property,” he says. “Second, we are a forestry-related business. It is our raw material, and we are looking to be sure that there’s a sustainable source of fiber into the future.”
Taylor adds that the program represents a new level of intentionality in the forest product industry’s communication to smallholders. “We’re trying to reach folks with that message that we can do land management, we can put professionals on the ground who can tell you what you need to do for harvesting timber,” he says. “It’s not just the usual, ‘We’ll show up and we’ll cut your timber and then you’ll never see us again’ — the cut and run, so to speak.”
While smallholders themselves won’t see much of a price premium for their timber, Goldberg says, certification gives them greater access to buyers. “The marketplace values certified wood,” he explains. “You’re less likely to encounter a quota on wood going to the mill because the mill, as part of that value chain, also values certified wood.”
The results of the program, notes Goldberg, will be evaluated by the forest product companies themselves, Rainforest Alliance and third-party experts. If the pilot successfully maintains forest health in harvested areas, he says, the principles of the SAP may be adopted into U.S. and international certification standards.
Adam Colette, program director for Asheville-based forest protection nonprofit Dogwood Alliance, says his group supports the SAP as a way to encourage better forestry across the region. However, he emphasizes that due to the importance of trees in combating climate change, the industry must reconsider its practices on an even broader scale.
“In the current climate emergency in which we exist right now, certification alone is not going to be enough,” Colette says, pointing to a Dogwood report from September that found logging to be North Carolina’s third-most carbon-intensive industry. “To ignore the carbon impacts from logging, which generally speaking our system does right now and certification does not address, is not moving us toward real solutions.”
Goldberg acknowledges that forestry does have significant climate impacts and that even the best logging practices still disrupt soil carbon storage. But he also notes that certification keeps forests from being lost to development, which would be an even greater climate danger.
“As long as we’re responsibly producing products that we need and want, then I think we’re going to be managing forests,” Goldberg says. “We should all be disappointed that [forestry] is not a silver bullet, but it’s significantly better than the alternative.”