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MOF&G Cover Spring 1999

  You are here:  PublicationsMaine Organic Farmer & GardenerSpring 1999Certified Forests   
 Are Certified Forests Organic? Minimize


Agroforestry Benefits Studied

By Mitch Lansky

Members of MOFGA are familiar with the concept of certification. It involves the use of third-party audits to verify a given claim such as: Has this food been organically grown? Certification, however, is being used to verify other claims such as: Does this product have x% recycled content? Is this product “biodegradable” as advertised? Is this forest “well managed,” “sustainable,” or “green”?

More and more organizations are endorsing the concept of certification because it is a market-based incentive, rather than a regulatory “stick’ to get companies to improve their practices. Certification benefits both consumers and producers. Consumers can cast their dollar “votes’’ for safer products produced in ways that do less damage to the environment. Producers can get better prices or better market access. Producers also, by getting an audit, can find out how well they are doing, based on certain criteria, and use this information to improve their practices.

One would think that certifying forest practices would be similar to certifying farm practices – and many similarities do exist. Both are concerned, for example, with environmentally sound ways of growing renewable resources. Most MOFGA members would probably have little trouble relating to the recent certification of two resource managers in Maine – Two Trees Forestry of Somerville, run by Mark Miller, and Mid-Maine Forestry of Warren, run by Barrie Brusila and Mitch Kihn. These woodlot forest managers prepare long-term management plans designed to improve the quality of forest products over time white taking ecosystem functions into consideration.

The recent certification of J.D. Irving Ltd’s Black Brook holdings in New Brunswick, Canada, however, shows that profound differences exist too. Irving is a multi-billion dollar conglomerate that owns oil refineries, shipping companies, newspapers, TV stations, potato farms, food processing plants and other businesses besides its forests, paper mill and saw mills. It has clearcut, sprayed pesticides, and planted single-species plantations on a fairly large scale. Its practices are not what most people would think of as “organic,” though some have argued that they are the best example of industrial-style management in the region. But should industrial-style management be certified “green”? Just how different is organic certification from forest certification?

Organic Certification

MOFGA created local standards before national or international standards existed. The MOFGA standards came out of an existing community of organic growers and organic food consumers. While debates continue in this movement concerning the best way to grow crops, the organic community has long agreed that organic, at a minimum, means raising foods without synthetic chemical fertilizers or pesticides. This came out of concerns for both the safety of the food for the consumer and the environmental impacts of synthetic chemicals on soil, water and local ecosystems. Organic practitioners also agree on the need for maintaining or building soil fertility with additions of organic matter, especially using compost, mulches, manures, crop rotations and green manures. They also agree that animals should be raised in a humane way without being fed antibiotics or hormones. Most organic advocates also strive tor use locally available renewable resources; protect genetic diversity of both crops and surrounding ecosystems; and interact with labor and the local community in socially responsible ways.

MOFGA certification standards divide practices into three categories: recommended, permitted or not permitted. Certification applies only to acres where practices are recommended or permitted. If a farmer has 5 acres of organic vegetables and a 2-acre orchard where some pesticides are used, only the vegetables are certifiable. On fields where prohibited fertilizers or pesticides have been used, growers must wait three years before they can market the produce as “organic.”

Forest Certification

Forestry certification has a much shorter history than that for organic food, yet Maine has far more acres of certified forests than farms. In 1994, Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) certified the nearly one million acres managed by Seven Islands for the Pingree heirs. In 1998, a number of other resource managers and landholdings were certified in this region. Scientific Certification Systems, a for-profit company that certifies a wide range of environmental claims under the Green Cross™ label, certified Mid-Maine Forestry. SmartWood, a forest certification program developed by the National Wildlife Federation and the Rainforest Alliance, certified Two-Trees Forestry. SmartWood has certified other managers recently in New Hampshire and Vermont. Scientific Certification System’s certified half a million acres of land belonging to J.D. Irving Ltd. in the Black Brook region of New Brunswick last year.

Both SCS and SmartWood are certified to certify by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an international organization based in Oaxaca, Mexico, Certifiers must have standards that are harmonious with FSC regional standards. If regional standards have not yet been ratified (as is the case in New England and the Maritimes), then certifiers must at least conform their standards to FSC’s international Principles and Criteria (first ratified in August 1994).

The certifiers. Although the certification of forests in other parts of the country has set some precedents, these standards, for other forest types, don’t always apply to this region. In the absence of regional guidelines, therefore, much depends on the makeup of the certification team. In the case of Seven Islands, SCS had a three-member certification team. One had experience from certifications in other parts of the country. Two others were chosen from Maine. In a 1995 Journal of Forestry article, Seven Islands officials John McNulty and John Cashwell described part of the process for choosing team members, “Because SCS had no experience in the Northeast, they asked Seven Islands to suggest names for the two remaining team members … The landowner and manager have little influence on the makeup of the team, but they do retain veto power over the selection of team members.”

Once regional standards are developed, certified landowners will have to follow them to stay certified. Seven Islands representatives are on the committee that is setting standards for the Northeastern United States. A J.D. Irving representative is on the committee setting standards for the Canadian Maritimes, In both cases, the committees work by consensus, so these companies have some say over the potential standards with which they will have to live. Currently, MOFGA has not invited large-scale, non-organic farm corporations to help define “organic.” The makeup of these committees can have an impact on the acceptability of large-scale practices.

The forest. With certified resource managers, only the properties that have long-term management plans get certified. Contracts to manage a single cut are not included. For properties that qualify and for large landownerships, unlike with organic certification, the whole unit gets certified, even if some of the parts don’t make the grade. For example, SCS gives a grade for three categories: timber resource sustainability, forest ecosystem maintenance, and socio-economic benefits. Landowners must get more than an established minimum score in each of these categories to get certified.

In its “Executive Summary” of the Seven Islands/ Pingree certification, the SCS team listed a number of areas where the company was not always up to snuff. For example:

• “Historical harvesting practices, poor markets for low-value products, and the need to salvage, extensive spruce-budworm-caused (sic) mortality have resulted in widespread conversion of valuable softwood types to less valuable and unnatural communities dominated by low-value hardwoods and balsam fir.”

• “… the harvest still exceeds calculated allowable harvests. In addition, high-valued spruce has been harvested disproportionately relative to its representation in the inventory …”

• “Seven Islands’ timber regulation strategy appears to be vulnerable to future spruce budworm outbreaks …”

• “… the extent of prescriptions driven by expedience or convenience (such as diameter limit harvests) needs to be reduced …”

Despite these problems, Seven Islands overall scores were high enough for certication. The SCS team was impressed with other aspects of Seven Islands’ management. It mentioned, for example, Seven Islands’ use of state-of-the-art, single-grip mechanical harvesters to manage softwoods for quality timber with minimum damage. These machines harvest, limb and cut to length trees and then pre-bunch them for another machine, called a forwarder, which carries, rather than drags, the wood to the yard.

Time. Most organic crops (except fruits) are annuals. The three-year wait during a transition from chemical to organic means that most harvested crops have not been exposed to chemical fertilizers or pesticides in their lifetimes. Trees, however, have lifespans greater than those of certifiers. Forest certification does not require a transition period to ensure that forest trees were brought up sustainably from their seedling stage. Although Seven Islands was certified despite the above (and other) significant problems, its continued certification is contingent on responding to such criticisms and improving management. It will also have to live within regional standards, once these are created.

The SCS team did an initial assessment of Irving and found that the company could not meet certification guidelines without changes. The team told Irving what these changes must be. One suggestion, for example, was to add more structure and diversity to spruce plantations by leaving dead trees, volunteer species (such as poplar) and scattered mature trees. Another was to set up benchmark reserves, totaling at least one-tenth the area in plantations, for at least 10 years to study the difference between plantations and what they replaced. The SCS team came back after Irving had made these and other changes and found that the company was now certifiable.

While these two examples demonstrate that certification can be a positive force for change, they also demonstrate why forestry certification can confuse consumers. People who tour forest lands see more results of past forest practices than current. When they see heavily cut, highgraded forests (in the case of Seven Islands) or vast spruce monocultures (in the case of Irving), they might wonder how this can be certifiable. With forestry, more so than with agriculture, you must live with past mistakes for a long time even after making a transition to better practices. How long, however, should a landowner be practicing good forestry to be considered “green”? If an overweight man is to be certified “physically fit,” must he lose the weight first, or is it sufficient that he has started dieting?

The standards. While organic certification certainly has some gray areas that lead to frequent debates, the intent of having no synthetic chemical fertilizers or pesticides is clear. With forestry, standards are not always so clear, thus leaving more room tor interpretation. What, for example, does the word “sustainable” mean? Some interpret this to mean that cut is less than or equal to growth. This formula, however, is rather primitive as it does not specify what (species, size or quality) is cut and what is growing. It also does not specify where (regional or ecosystem impacts) or over how long a period the cut and growth are compared.

The cut on Irving over the last decade has been greater than growth. Irving is basing its heavy cut now, however, on its projected future growth once its vast plantations kick in. This is called the "allowable cut effect" or "accelerated cut effect." This high current cut based on projected future growth works only if all goes as planned in the computer and no bugs (such as the spruce budworm) are in the program. It also works only if one considers plantations an adequate substitute for the forests they replace.

Other key FSC principles and criteria for certification are also general and open to a wide range of interpretation. For example, criterion #9.1 states that plantations “shall not replace or significantly alter the natural ecosystem.” Irving plans to have 85% of its softwood acreage at Black Brook in plantations. Part of this, softwood acreage is actually a conversion from previous hardwood and mixedwood forests. But the certifiers from SCS have suggested that technically these plantations are not really plantations. According to the FSC definition, a plantation “has yielded conditions in which only a few of the characteristics of the indigenous natural forest ecosystem remain,” The SCS team claims that Irving’s spruce plantations, using native spruce, maintain more than a few of the characteristics of the indigenous natural forest. Thus, they are not technically “plantations.” Critics, however, point out that Irving, is planting these species on sites and in concentrations that are not natural to the Acadian forest region.

Forest Stewardship Council criterion #6.6 states that “management systems shall promote the development and adoption of environmentally friendly, non-chemical methods of pest management and strive to avoid the use of chemical pesticides.” For plantation establishment, Irving uses a variety of pesticides in the nursery, regularly uses two herbicide applications for site preparation and release, and sprays insecticides as needed. If Irving reduces pesticide use from its previous levels but still sprays more than most other landowners, is the company fulfilling the intent of this criterion?

Scientific Certification Systems gave Seven islands and Irving high ratings for social benefits. Seven Islands is a major exporter of raw sawlogs to Quebec and a major importer of Canadian workers, last year some Maine loggers set up blockades (one of which was on a private road owned by the Pingrees) at the Maine/Quebec border to protest the import of Quebec workers and the export of raw sawlogs. The loggers argued that Maine is losing thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in potential tax revenues by allowing these practices. Seven Islands’ managers have argued that the term “community” encompasses more than just Maine. Quebec is part of the regional community. The company has recently, however, opened a hardwood sawmill in Ashland, Maine. Irving hires Mexicans to plant and thin its young forests in Maine. With NAFTA, I suppose Mexico must be part of our community too. As President Clinton has pointed out, the meaning of the word "alone" depends on the size you attribute to the area in which you are located.

Challenges to Certification

The federal government, In trying to set national standards for organic food certification, recently attempted to lower standards far below those that MOFGA accepts. It recommended, for example, allowing the use of sewage sludge, bioengineered crops and irradiation. A massive protest from the public prevented this, but corporations, such as Monsanto, have not given up hope that these standards will become more favorable for their interests eventually.

Organic certification, to some extent, may be threatened by its own success. As more consumers demand organic produce, more growers are going to want to get into the act. But should corporate monoculture megafarms be able to ship food from California to Maine supermarkets and label it certified “organic” if they simply do not use chemical fertilizers or pesticides? How will the organic movement deal with size, distance and political influence?

In the United States, agriculture is one of the biggest threats to both biodiversity and ground water. In Maine, however, agriculture takes up much less of the landscape than In other regions. Even if a farm is “organic,” however, it can still have negative impacts. How can the certification process be better used to protect total farm biodiversity from widescale conversion and habitat fragmentation? How can certification be used to protect ground water from siltation, unnatural temperature changes, accelerated water-level fluctuations, and chemical and nutrient pollution? As yet, MOFGA does not require filter strips between plowed land and water bodies, for example (although shoreland zoning laws, farm conservation plans, nutrient management plans and MOFGA’s standards relating to rates and times of manure applications do address this issue).

Forestry certification, which is still in its early stages, has not yet come up with transparent standards that most consumers can grasp – the same way they can grasp the concept of organic. As of this writing, the Sierra Club of Canada is challenging the SCS certification of Irving’s Black Brook district, It claims that the certification veers from international standards, won’t meet regional standards, and sets a precedent of acceptability of industrial practices that many find objectionable. Such a challenge, one hopes, will stimulate a needed debate that will better refine the direction in which forestry certification will go.

With both agriculture and forestry, the key is to be more precise in defining what is required for certification. The public will get what certifiers request – which may not always be what the public wants. Whether or not we can answer “yes” to the question, “Is Irving’s forest ‘green’?” depends a great deal on who is framing the question. More public input can make a difference.

About the author: Mitch Lansky, of Wytapitlock, has been active since the 1970s with both MOFGA and forestry issues in Maine. He is author of Beyond the Beauty Strip: Saving What’s Left of Our Forests, published in 1992 by Tilbury House Publishers. He works with the Low-Impact Forestry Project (an approach to forestry that is compatible with organic farming) and is a frequent contributor to the Northern Forest Forum.

Resources

Forest Stewardship Council, U.S. Contact Representative, RD 1, Box 182, Waterbury VT 05676; 802-2244-6257; www.fscus.org.

Scientific Certification Systems (SCS), Debbie Hammel – Director, Forest Conservation Program, 1939 Harrison Street, Suite 400, Oakland CA, 94512; www.scs1.com/

SmartWood Program of the Rainforest Alliance, 1 Millet Street, Richmond VT 05477; 802-434-5491; www.rainforest-alliance.org/forestry/certification/

National Wildlife Federation, Northeast Natural Resource Center, 58b State Street, Montpelier VT 05602; www.nwf.net/northeast/smwood

Sierra Club of Canada, 212-1 Nichols St., Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1W 7B7; 612-241-4611; www.sierraclub.ca/

J.D. Irving, Limited, 300 Union Street, P.O. Box 5777, Saint John NB, Canada E2L 4M3; 506-632-7777; www.jdirving.com/ (J.D. Irving not only is the biggest landowner in New Brunswick, it is also the biggest landowner in Maine now – after purchasing 1 million acres from Bowater. Irving does not plan to manage its Maine holdings as it does its Black Brook holdings. The forest is different and so is the tax system. New Brunswick makes it easier, with regard to finances, to justify establishing plantations.)

Seven islands Land Company, 112 Broadway, Bangor ME 04401; 207-947-0541

Two Trees Forestry, Mark Miller, 281 Sand Hill Road, Somerville ME 04348; 207-549-7622

Mid-Maine Forestry, Barrie Brasilia and Mitch Kihn, 1320 Western Road, Warren ME 04864; 273-4046

Timbergreen, S11478 Soeldner Road, Spring Green WI 53588; www.timbergreenforestry.com/ (Timbergreen is a woodlot cooperative in Wisconsin with strong guidelines for low-impact, sustainable forestry and with a strong value-added marketing approach. It is certified under SmartWood and has a very interesting website.)

Vermont Family Forests, David Brynn, Addison County Forester, 1590 Route 7 South, Middlebury VT 05753 (VFF is a woodlot cooperative in Vermont that also has strong guidelines for forest practices and has value-added marketing for members. It too is certified under SmartWood.)

Windhorse Farm, 132 Sarty Road, New Germany, Nova Scotia, 902-542-0122; www.windhorsefarm.org/ (Windhorse Farm has a strong organic/ecoforestry approach. It gives workshops on a variety of subjects relating to forestry and farming and has a lot of information on its website.)

Low-Impact Forestry Project, Hancock County Planning Commission, 395 State Street, Ellsworth ME 04605; 207-667-7131; www.hcpcme.org/ (Although located in the Hancock County Planning Commission, the Low-Impact Forestry Project is for anyone in Maine who is interested in leaving a functional forest after the cutting is done. It has strong guidelines for reducing damage to residual trees, the soil, and the forest ecosystem. It has publications on logging technology as well. Currently, it has a logger/forester referral system, but it is planning on expanding its services along the lines of VFF and Timbergreen. Check out the LIFP website.)

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Agroforestry Benefits Studied

Trees can shelter livestock – as well as farmsteads – from winter’s cold and summer’s heat. But … 1,200 trees in a pasture? That’s how many black locust trees Charles M. Feldhake is growing in a West Virginia pasture. The Agricultural Research Service soil scientist planted the trees in rows about 30 feet apart in a 5-acre watershed where 25 sheep graze. Another 25 sheep graze an adjacent, treeless watershed.

Feldhake and horticulturist Carol M. Schumann want to find out whether the trees can catch excess nitrogen from livestock urine and manure in subsoil, before it reaches groundwater. The researchers are at the Agricultural Research Service Appalachian Soil and Water Conservation Research Laboratory in Beaver, West Virginia.

Feldhake and Schumann are interested in other benefits of “agroforestry,” the term used for growing trees and shrubs on farms. Locust trees, for example, can be sold for firewood or fence posts. Locust flowers provide nectar for honeybees.

The scientists are also testing black walnut, honey locust and sea buckthorn on pastures, European farmers grow sea buckthorn, a shrub, for its nutritious, tasty berries.

In another study, in the winter of 1997-1998, the scientists opened a forest strip and planted red oaks along with faster-growing trees and shrubs, including white pine, Chinese chestnut, pawpaw, hazelnut, blueberries and raspberries. They want to find out if the shorter-term plantings can yield marketable products without negative effects on the red oaks that would be selectively cut for high-value veneer.

In addition to the research goals, the scientists hope to demonstrate to local farmers that perennial woody species make sense as Appalachian crops.

For more information, see: www.ars.usda.gov/is/AR/archive/ or contact Charles M. Felhake and Carol M. Schumann, ARS Appalachian Soil and Water Conservation Research Laboratory, Beckley, West Virginia; Tel. 304-252-6426; Fax 304-256-2921; email feldhake@asrr.arsusda.gov or schumann@asrr.arsusda.gov.

Source: ARS Information, www.ars.usda.gov/is/pr/thelatest.htm.

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