FSC certification of US public forest lands: the warnings from Michigan

Debate is growing in the US about the certification of public forests with FSC and the so-called Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) being the front-running schemes. There are good reasons to question whether, in its current state, FSC is an appropriate tool for certification of the vast areas of forest which are in state and federal public ownership in the US, and which in many cases have very high values for recreational, cultural and nature protection purposes. Some of the potential problems are starkly illustrated by one of the existing major FSC certifications of public forest lands, that of the 1.6 million hectares of the Michigan state forests as managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

The Michigan DNR was certified under the FSC at the very end of 2005 by Scientific Certification Systems Inc (SCS). The certificate was soon the subject of an informal complaint to FSC by the Sierra Club, who evidently felt that DNR was non-compliant with the FSC’s Principles and Criteria. As a result of this complaint, in October 2006, FSC’s Accreditation Services International undertook a second look at the certificate as part of its regularly-scheduled audit of SCS.

The report of FSC’s investigation, eventually published in July 2007, is very revealing (available for download below).

For example, the FSC Audit Report states (pg. 7): “concerns that a much too high proportion of the landscape managed by DNR for early successional species appears to be based on an ideal that is not practical for DNR to manage to given the multitude of stakeholder concerns that it must respond to.” This statement appears to permit a forest management operation to be assessed not for compliance with FSC standards but with the ‘practicality’ of managing to various stakeholder concerns.

Further evidence of ASI’s apparent acquiescence to an entirely different standard of ‘compliance’ is the following statement from the Audit Report (pg. 9): …management is not completely ideal from an environmental perspective, but given the social and economic pressures associated with managing such a large public forest, the trend seems positive rather than negative, and generally consistent with FSC direction.” This indicates that FSC-ASI – which is supposed to ensure that FSC’s accredited certifiers uphold the Principles and Criteria – has, in this case, actually knowingly allowed the certifiers to issue certificates to companies that are non-compliant with specific standards, and instead on the basis of ‘trends’ and ‘general consistency’ with FSC ‘direction’.

ASI seems to clearly acknowledge that MI DNR has not met FSC certification standards. Again from the Audit Report (pg. 10): “MI DNR appears to recognize the intent of the FSC standards and has gone to some length to adjust its management to conform to the standards.” This obviously means that MI DNR has not complied with the standards to date, and, more disturbingly, that its management can be certified as long as DNR ‘recognizes the intent of’ and ‘goes to some length to conform to’ FSC standards, rather than achieves actual compliance with the standards.

In another statement from the report (pg. 10), ASI further implies that MI DNR should be given considerable latitude in how it manages its forest, whether or not its management is FSC-compliant, simply because MI DNR is under various ‘pressures’: “MI DNR has suffered from budget cuts and is under pressure from a host of stakeholder groups, which poses some real difficulty in changing direction in as timely a manner as [Sierra Club], or SCS, would prefer.”The implications of this, if extended across other public forest lands, would be that sub-standard (non-compliant) forestry practices would be tolerated by FSC depending on whether it was felt that ‘stakeholder pressure’ or budgetary constraints were in force – making a complete mockery of FSC as a supposedly ‘performance-based’ certification system. (In fact this is a consistent problem with how FSC regards the issuing of non-compliant certificates, such as inUganda and Spain).

The report further adds: “Sierra Club as well as other stakeholders should continue to apply pressure to help DNR understand its concerns about the environmental effects of its management.” This is tantamount to an admission by the FSC that it itself will not control the quality of the certificates issued in its name or ensure that the auditor (SCS) deliver, substantiate, or require such compliance (as it is required to do under its accreditation to FSC), but will rely on ‘other stakeholders’ to “apply pressure” to ensure MI DNR compliance with FSC standards.

FSC rules do not permit relaxation of certification standards and compliance requirements, or a shifting of fundamental management responsibility, whenever a forest manager has budget problems or is under pressure. Toward the end of the Audit Report (pg. 13), ASI dismisses such compliance failures as mere “loose ends” for DNR to deal with, of little consequence because DNR is “trying very hard”. DNR may well be be “trying very hard”, but this is not sufficient performance within the FSC system to earn an FSC certificate. ASI notes deficiencies in SCS’s stakeholder consultation procedures, but the Audit Report (pg. 12) calls these deficiencies only a “potential problem”, appears to state that it is a lower-level concern because “it may be a systemic problem within SCS” (which should instead make it a higher-level concern), and also notes that it is a problem which apparently afflicts “most CBs” – but then fails to recommend any corrective action whatsoever. So the conclusion here is that FSC is well aware that there are systemic problems with some of its accredited certifiers, but is failing to do anything about it.

There is another problem because of the way that FSC’s accredited certifiers are allowed to directly contract with the forest managers. Regulated forestry standards on public lands are, at least notionally, subject to democratic accountability. However, forestry ‘standards’ established through the FSC process are basically the result of a confidential bilateral commercial contract between the public body and the FSC certification agency, such as SCS. As we have seen above in the case of the State of Michigan, although SCS is supposedly required to apply ‘multistakeholder safeguards’, they might well not do so, and know that they can get away with this with impunity, because the FSC-ASI now has a long track record of ‘turning a blind eye’ to the certifiers’ failures. The case of management of public forest lands in Ireland is a long-standing example of how the FSC has actually served to undermine national targets for improved forestry.

This means that, whilst the FSC was designed precisely so that ‘multiple forest uses’ are taken into account, in practice, because of the certifiers’ persistent failures to uphold the Principles and Criteria, and FSC-ASI’s failure to take action against such certifiers, the FSC system would be a very unreliable means of ensuring quality of management on US public forest lands; indeed, there is a real risk that FSC could serve to undermine existing forestry standards.

Download the FSC-ASI report on Michigan here: ASI2006MISCSauditpublicsummary.pdf

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