Natural Allies

A logging vehicle harvests from a forest. Credit: Columbia Land Trust

Why timber companies are turning to sustainable certifications.

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Last month, the international fellows at the World Forestry Institute unveiled their conservation projects, designed to address conservation challenges around the world.

From reforestation in Malawi to fighting forest fires in France, the fellows debuted solutions to a wide range of forestry issues, all of which were researched and developed in the Pacific Northwest.

To design their initiatives, fellows met conservation nonprofits as well as timber companies to learn state-of-the-art forestry techniques. Many of these projects blended business and conservation needs together to create solutions and mutually beneficial partnerships.

A Global Forest
Fellows at the World Forestry Institute pose for a photo. Credit Shadia Duery

It might sound counterintuitive at first. Why could folks learning how to preserve forests learn from those who make a living chopping them down? But the timber industry in Oregon has come a long way since the spotted owl battle of the 1990s, both culturally and technologically.

For those unfamiliar, on June 26, 1990, the northern spotted owl was put on the Endangered Species list. Although the owl faced extinction, loggers fought a tooth-and-nail battle against the legislation that protects old-growth forests in which the owls make their nests.

RELATED STORY: A Global Forest

In a move reminiscent of Oregon’s recent fight over cap-and-trade, loggers drove trucks around the state capitol, claiming protections for the owl would obliterate the state’s timber industry. Thirty years later, the spotted owl is still here and timber remains a vital asset to Oregon’s economy. Oregon’s forest sector generates $12.5 billion annually in product output, $2.8 billion in wages, and employs 61,000 Oregonians.

While thousands of jobs have been lost in the timber industry over the past three decades, much of the losses have come from automation. Although conservationists and the forestry industry have had their differences over the years, Cherie Kearney, forest conservation director at Columbia Land Trust, says at the end of the day conservationists and loggers have the same goal: keeping forests and forestry around forever.

“We have had very long, productive relationships with our forestry partners,” says Kearney. Maintaining good working relationships with forestry companies is indispensable to her work, she says.

 “An area that is of particular importance to us is finding common ground and building conservation from that,” says Kearney. The land trust does what is known as “voluntary conservation transactions,” meaning it works directly with forestry companies, buying, selling and coming to agreements about wilderness it says would benefit from protection.Her organization has worked with companies like Weyerhaeuser and SDS Lumber Company to ensure a healthy ecosystem along the Columbia River. To date, Kearney’s organization has conserved 43,000 acres in the Columbia River region of Oregon and Washington.

Despite the efforts of conservation nonprofits, timber producers in Oregon still have a tendency to skirt environmental regulations. Brenda McComb, a retired Oregon State University professor who serves on the state’s Board of Forestry, reported high levels of non-compliance and unresponsiveness from forest landowners in a public email less than a year ago.

A logging vehicle harvests lumber. Credit: Columbia Land Trust

Despite the board reporting 98% compliance with state regulations, McComb said that companies that refused access to, or provided incomplete data for their forestry practices, made the compliance findings unreliable.

Oregon’s spotted owls have continued to struggle. The owls’ population has declined by 3% a year since the mid 1990’s, and according to Oregon State researcher, Steve Ackers, the endangered birds only have a 35% success rate for rearing new young. Timber suppliers, such as global timberland managment company GreenWood Resources, have turned to global nonprofits to show their commitment to sustainability instead relying solely on state and federal regulations.

GreenWood Resources has attained certification for many of its global operations sustainable forestry nonprofit such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). Much like the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), the FSC certifies a company’s timber has been harvested from forests that are responsibly managed and environmentally conscious. 

RELATED STORY: Beyond the Timber Wars

Steve Gretzinger, acquisitions manager at GreenWood Resources, says there is a financial incentive to becoming certified by organizations such as the FSC. He says some consumers will pay more for wood they know is sustainably harvested, and sustainabilty certification programs offer greater market access and brand recognition. His company is always seeking to innovate and discover the best forestry techniques.

“In the old days when I learned about forestry at Oregon State we focused primarily on sustained timber production. Making sure you got a stable, long-term flow of wood every year was considered sustainable,” he says. “But things change and the concept of sustainability has become much broader. We now work to balance wood flow with the protection of biodiversity, reduction of environmental impacts, contributions to the well-being of timber communities and worker safety.”

Gretzinger says sustainability practices can help to create new long-term forestry jobs previously lost to automation and changing markets.

“The profile of a person who is really good at reduced-impact logging or determining sustainable cut levels is different from someone who can determine if you have the appropriate road systems to reduce soil erosion, or determines the amount of carbon your forest has and how to increase the same, or how to design your harvests and thinnings in a way that protects wildlife habitat.”

Credit: Columbia Land Trust

According to Gretzinger, private forestry companies have plenty to teach about conservation best practices, especially when it comes to fighting wildfires, a persistent problem in the Pacific Northwest.

“When you look at industrial forest lands that are actively managed and follow environmental regulations, you have thinning programs which allow you to remove the smaller and deformed trees, thus reducing fuel for forest fires,” he says.

“On small private timber holdings or large tracts of public lands, lack of funds or conflicting management objectives can result in inadequate thinning, an accumulation of tightly packed trees in poor health that can ultimately lead to catastrophic fires,” he says.

Gretzinger also says forestry companies could profit from “environmental services,” which are benefits a healthy forest can provide other than lumber. Forestry companies can also receive money from selling carbon offsets, which are credits landowners receive for not chopping down forests.

RELATED STORY: Forestry Carbon Offsets Create New Opportunites For Landowners

Had Oregon’s cap-and-trade legislation passed, forest owners could have sold the carbon offsets to regulated emitters in the state’s cap-and-trade market. Perhaps the burden will continue to fall on conservation groups to provide financial incentives for forest preservation by purchasing land from timber companies or buying and extinguishing development rights to forest lands, meaning a forest can be harvested, but never cut down and built over.

For all the hard work and collaboration between forestry companies and nonprofits, the fundamental challenge of monetizing healthy forests remains.

Clean air and clean water are certainly perks of having healthy woodlands, but for the moment, there’s no way for a timber company to profit from them. Until carbon offsetting gets off the ground, cultivating strong relationships between timber companies and conservation groups, as well as consumers willing to pay extra for certified sustainability, will remain essential to preserving the state’s wilderness.

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