The Adaptive Advantage: SFI’s Research Requirement

C. Tattersall Smith
Professor and Dean Emeritus
Faculty of Forestry
University of Toronto

The U.S. Green Building Council is inviting comments on the draft language for its LEED rating system. SFI Inc. has invited views on the treatment of third-party forest certification, which must be “FSC or better” according to the latest USGBC credit language.  In this post, Charles Tattersall (Tat) Smith Jr., Professor and Dean Emeritus in the Faculty of Forestry at the University of Toronto and a member of the SFI Board of Directors, looks at the role of research in the SFI program.

Achieving the goals of sustainable forest management requires society to commit to the long-term pursuit of knowledge about the ways in which our forests contribute to sustaining economic, social and environmental values. Research conducted within the overall framework of adaptive forest management is a fundamental cornerstone of the pursuit of the knowledge required.

Our academic institutions play an essential role in partnership with all actors in the forest sector as we educate the next generation of professionals and develop new knowledge and seek to reduce uncertainty about the ways in which forest management decisions sustain forests to meet the needs of society today and for future generations. As an educator, I encourage students to be inquisitive and to challenge existing theoretical bases which guide government policy and management decisions, and to be passionate in the pursuit of new levels of understanding.

The Sustainable Forestry Initiative® (SFI®) recognizes the important role of research in improving the way our forests are managed. Research is a core principle of the SFI 2010-2014 Standard, and central to SFI’s many collaborations. SFI is the only third-party forest certification program in North America with specific research requirements – Objective 15 of its standard says program participants must provide financial or in-kind support of research to address questions of relevance in the region of operations. The research shall include some of the following issues:

a. forest health, productivity, and ecosystem functions;

b. chemical efficiency, use rate and integrated pest management;

c. water quality and/or effectiveness of best management practices including effectiveness of water quality and best management practices for protecting the quality, diversity and distributions of fish and wildlife habitats;

d. wildlife management at stand and landscape levels;

e. conservation of biological diversity;

f. ecological impacts of bioenergy feedstock removals on productivity, wildlife habitat, water quality and other ecosystem functions;

g. climate change research for both adaptation and mitigation;

h. social issues;

i. forest operations efficiencies and economics;

j. energy efficiency;

k. life cycle assessment;

l. avoidance of illegal logging; and

m. avoidance of controversial sources.

As a result of this unique requirement, SFI-certified companies have invested more than $1.2 billion in research activities since 1995. Further, SFI Inc. has invested more than a million dollars in conservation and community partnership grants, in the last two years.

While the numbers are impressive, what matters most to me are the results.

Here’s an example: I currently provide leadership to an international collaboration under the auspices of the International Energy Agency Bioenergy implementing agreement, and will be making recommendations on how certification can contribute to meeting society’s sustainability goals for emerging international bioenergy markets. I know I can count on SFI as a resource in this endeavor, because back in 2008 I led an SFI-hosted workshop that brought together experts on sustainable biomass production. It’s worth noting that our recommendations at that time led to changes in the SFI 2010-2014 Standard. For example, in addition to SFI adding research on bioenergy feedstocks to Objective 15 as listed above in letter f, the SFI Standard now includes a definition for bioenergy feedstocks; and requirements for landowners to have a program or monitoring system to ensure efficient utilization, which may include provisions to ensure…management of harvest residue (e.g. slash, limbs, tops) considers economic, social and environmental factors (e.g. organic and nutrient value to future forests) and other utilization needs; and also requirements for procurement companies to supply regionally appropriate information or services (e.g. information packets, websites, newsletters, workshops, tours, etc.) to forest landowners, describing the importance and providing implementation guidance on…management of harvest residue.

This is the kind of proactive effort I welcome. I am proud to be a member of the SFI board, and look forward to seeing further advances in sustainable bioenergy feedstock production so SFI can use them to inform its next standard review cycle, which begins in 2013.

SFI, like science, never stops learning. It is more than words on paper. SFI and its partners deliver actual results on the ground and in communities across North America. They build knowledge and advance understanding.

The same cannot be said for the approach to forest certification in the LEED draft. Using a phrase like, “FSC or better” has no validity or basis in science. The U.S. Green Building Council is well advised to recognize SFI certification which happens to exceed FSC in the area of research as FSC has no such requirement.  By including SFI, the USGBC would also tell researchers like me that it values the work and knowledge we have achieved through the SFI program.

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