Sustainable Forestry

Michelle Peach
Community Forestry Resource Center, IATP

Forest products are ubiquitous in our society and include much more than wood and paper. Taxol, a chemotherapy drug; rubber-soled shoes; cosmetics; chewing gum; a molded plastic comb; and a softball can all be derived partially or fully from trees. With growing populations and rising standards of living, demand for forest products has increased. So, too, have concerns about preserving the aesthetic, cultural, ecological, recreational and spiritual values of forests. The question becomes: how do we continue to use forest products without compromising the integrity of the ecosystem?

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. The devastating wildfires of 2000 and 2001 helped to illustrate this point. For many years the U.S. Forest Service has had a policy of preventing fires in order to protect the forests and people living around them. It is now widely recognized, however, that fires play an important role in forest ecosystems. Minnesota’s jack pine, for example, has fire resistant bark and cones that are closed tightly by a thick resin. During a fire the resin melts, releasing the seeds. Without fire, jack pine cannot effectively naturally regenerate. Although the importance of fire to forests is being acknowledged, its reintroduction is complicated by risks to humans and to forests themselves. After so much fire suppression, a great deal of fuel (dead branches, logs, leaves) has built up on the forest floor. This amount of fuel allows fires to burn hotter and more intensely than forests are adapted to and can lead to the death of all trees and plants in the area – not the normal result of a wildfire. In other words, fires can be good for forests, but not the kind of fires created by years of fire suppression.

Determining how to reincorporate fire safely into forest ecosystems is just one of many challenges facing sustainable forest management. To deal with these challenges, a coalition of international business, environmental and social non-governmental organizations came together to create the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) in the early 1990s. This council aims to define and promote sustainable forest management. The FSC is an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organization that has set standards for well-managed forestry worldwide. These standards, defined by a committee of people representing a wide range of opinions, are quite broad and include protection of biodiversity, conservation of ancient natural woodlands, long-term responsible management, regular monitoring, recognition of indigenous people’s rights, and long-term economic viability. Forests can become certified (similar to organic certification for food) (See: FOOD: Organic Food), by having an inspection to see if they are being managed according to FSC’s principles and criteria.

FSC certification provides two main benefits to private landowners: third-party verification that forest management is being done sustainably and a recognizable logo for marketing purposes. For many landowners, who don’t have the time or knowledge to assess the health of their forests and the quality of management by foresters or loggers, the third-party verification is an important reason for becoming certified. There are other, non-FSC, forest certification options available, but they do not include third party verification. Landowners throughout Minnesota and Wisconsin have been responding to the need for forest management that supports the ecological health of forests while providing social and economic benefits by forming cooperative groups. Nineteen such groups are currently in various stages of development in the upper Midwest. The groups differ based on the interests and personalities of their members, but they share a commitment to practicing sustainable forestry, supporting local economies and empowering private landowners. All of these groups have chosen to pursue certification according to the principles and criteria developed by the FSC.

The first two cooperative landowner groups in the Midwest, Sustainable Woods Cooperative and the Hiawatha Sustainable Woods Cooperative, own and operate lumber mills where logs can be cut into boards, dried and made into wood products. This value-added processing helps stimulate the local economy while providing a higher economic return to landowners. Other benefits to members include educational field days, access to professional advice, the opportunity to interact with neighbors and the satisfaction of doing good forest management. Sustainable forestry practices are essential to sustainable communities. After so many years of logging and fire suppression, leaving forests alone is not an option in much of the state. Furthermore, we as consumers rely heavily on forest products. Sustainable forestry, along with reduced demand for forest products, can help to preserve and restore our forests.

What You Can Do

* Reduce consumption. Allow the type and amount of forest products to be determined by the forest instead of by the market.

* Buy FSC certified or recycled wood products.

* Urge your local stores to sell recycled, tree-free, or certified products.

* Buy directly from a local woods cooperative.

* If you own land, join a woods cooperative in your area.

See Also: Arts: Fair Trade Arts: Building


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