When I was a kid tromping through the Pennsylvania woods with my uncles, I knew instinctively when I was in a forest. To me, the leafy shroud of hardwoods on those rugged hillsides made it self-evident. But it was only many years later that my studies in forestry, and later ecology and conservation biology, taught me that a “forest” is defined pretty specifically. I went from “knowing it when I see it”, to understanding that forests are technically distinct from woodlands, shrublands, and other ecological communities dominated by woody vegetation. And there are myriad additional complexities related to structure, age, seral stage and composition that dictate both the intrinsic and human values of forests.
Though it may be interesting fodder for cocktail conversations amongst ecologists and conservationists, the definition of a forest was probably not of much interest to most people until relatively recent concerns over climate change and deforestation. All of a sudden, what constitutes a forest – and how to recognize deforestation when we see it – becomes a much more serious matter, affecting economic activity at a global scale and the livelihoods of millions of people, not to mention the forest resource itself. As an example, it is now increasingly common for companies to seek to limit the negative impact of their procurement policies by adopting “Zero Deforestation” commitments which assure that their activities do not contribute to the loss of forests.
So why should we care about forests, and about deforestation?
There is no question that loss of forests globally is a critically important issue. Forests are the foremost carbon “sinks” and they naturally clean and regulate our water supplies. Forests harbor an incredible abundance of biodiversity, ensuring healthy function of ecosystems and, in turn, assuring our own health. And economic activity related to forests is a primary driver in many countries, so the lives of many communities literally depend on them.
Fortunately, the forested ecosystems that dominate the United States and Canada are productive, resilient and renewable. With proper management, these forests can and do provide resources that our society needs every day, from cardboard to construction materials to baby diapers. Well-managed forests, like those certified to the SFI Standard, also provide recreational opportunities, perpetuation of our wild natural heritage, and the beautiful verdant landscapes for which our continent is so well known.
So, while guarding against loss of forests is extremely important, we need also to guard against the perception that appropriate use of forests, including harvesting to generate forest products, somehow equates to “deforestation”. Real deforestation occurs when forests are converted to other land uses, such that the multitude of values emanating from that forest, from biodiversity and water filtration to the unfulfilled value of future products and recreation, are forever lost from the realm of opportunity.
Deforestation is a serious global issue, and it’s good that we should pay attention to it. But it’s very important to ensure that, in our zeal to stop forest loss, policies or metrics don’t inadvertently confound the differing realities of forest harvest versus true deforestation. This is particularly important when those managed forests are harvested under assurances of long-term sustainability. To confuse responsible management with loss does a disservice to the very important issues that may be honestly addressed through corporate “Zero Deforestation” policies. Credible forest certification programs like SFI are actually an important element of such policies, since fiber certified to SFI disallows the inclusion of wood sourced from areas being converted from forests to other land uses.
Though it’s almost impossible for any large procurement entity to acquire all of their fiber supply entirely from certified sources, striving for sustainable sourcing can help meet zero-deforestation goals, and apply market pressure to ensure responsible management and forest regeneration. For non-certified forests in the United States and Canada, like most of those belonging to millions of family forest owners, SFI’s Fiber Sourcing Standard places important responsibilities in the hands of the procuring entity. This effectively elevates performance at the critical moment of harvest in important areas like water quality, biodiversity protection, and regeneration.
Perhaps “deforestation” is as simple as “I’ll know it when I see it.” But assurances to guard against forest loss have to be a bit more sophisticated to ensure compliance, and avoid any confusion that may result from inadequate or ill-founded definitions. As a third-party audited system, SFI is an integral part of any strategy to limit the loss of forestlands in the United States and Canada, and thus help ensure the success of zero-deforestation efforts.