In the interests of simplifying customers’ conformance to green building initiatives and timber procurement policies in major export markets, AHEC and its membership actively encourages development of independent “group” and “regional” forest certification procedures suited to small non-industrial forest owners in the United States.

These efforts, which are still in their early stages, are being managed by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the American Tree Farm System (ATFS) which is now part of the international Program for Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) network.

Forest certification systems like the FSC and PEFC comprise:

  • Forest management standards – documents which set out the requirements which must be met by the forest manager and against which certification assessments are made.
  • Certification - a process to establish whether or not the standard has been met.
  • Accreditation – a mechanism to ensure that the organizations which undertake certification are independent and professionally competent (sometimes referred to as "certifying the certifiers").
  • A mechanism to control claims - including procedures to monitor the chain of custody of forest products from certified areas to point of sale and to enforce rules for organizations making claims relating to the quality of forest management.

To date these systems have been most effective in certifying large industrial and state-owned forest operations. They have been less well adapted to the needs of the small non-industrial forest owners which dominate American hardwood supply.  Over 90% of US hardwoods are supplied by private landowners, mainly by small family forest owners with an average holding of less than 10 hectares.  According to figures released at the UNECE Timber Committee meeting in Geneva 2009, it is estimated that at present no more than 100,000 (1%) of small forest owners in the U.S. out of a total of around 10 million are either FSC or PEFC certified.

There are several obstacles to forest certification in the American hardwood sector.  One obstacle is to generate sufficient support amongst the huge and diverse constituency of small forest owners to provide adequate throughput of certified material to facilitate labelling of U.S. hardwoods.  The level of awareness of forest certification amongst the owners of hardwood forest land is still low. According to the National Woodland Owners Survey (NWOS) undertaken as part of the Forest Service 2010 RPA Assessment, only 12% of U.S. family forest owners have heard of forest certification. It is also difficult to encourage small owners to work together for group certification in a sector where there is little or no tradition of co-operative action.

Another obstacle is that the market incentive for achieving certification is weak amongst owners that do not rate timber production as a major reason for owning forest land and that might harvest only once in a generation.  According to the NWOS, only about 10% of family forest owners that collectively account for 30% of the area in family forests identify timber production as an important reason for owning forest.

Furthermore, fragmentation of forest ownership means that it can be difficult to trace wood from individual forest to point of sale.  Hardwood timber operators purchase from hundreds of different landowners each year, usually in small quantities. Much is sold through wood dealers who amass logs from many different sources. This makes chain of custody tracking for certification much more challenging.

Despite these challenges, progress is now being made to extend certification practices to small non-industrial forest owners in the United States. Large group programmes administered by state agencies in Wisconsin, Indiana and Massachusetts have been issued certificates by the FSC and/or the ATFS.  Forest owners participating in group certification benefit from significant state tax incentives. Development of similar programmes in other states is therefore likely to be heavily dependent on the willingness of U.S. state authorities to forego tax income in the interests of forest certification.

Further expansion of certification in the American hardwood sector will require co-ordinated efforts by certification organisations, forest owner associations, industry, and local, state and national governments to remove remaining obstacles and provide appropriate incentives for participation by small non-industrial forest owners. There is also a need to support R&D into new and innovative procedures for cost-effective certification of family forest owners.