Editor’s note: This commentary article was written by Puneet Dwivedi, Associate Professor in Forest Sustainability Sciences at the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources
Georgia is gifted with abundant and healthy forests that cover about 24 million acres or about 65 percent of total land in the state. Forest landowners, recreational users, manufacturers, and consumers of wood products alike recognize the enormous value of forests in their daily life.
For many, forestlands are matter of livelihood, with the forest products sector sustaining nearly 145,000 jobs and contributing $34 billion to the state’s economy. For others, forestlands are important for ensuring flows of environmental benefits that are vital for maintaining the quality of life of all residents of Georgia.
Forests are healthy and growing in Georgia and across the United States due to generally good forest management practices. Thanks to them, we have cleaner air and water, greater biodiversity, employment opportunities and prosperous rural communities.
To see the other side of the coin, just peruse the headlines showing how many countries are losing their forest cover due to fire, illegal logging, corruption and other management-related issues. The threat is especially concerning in the Amazon, the so-called lungs of the world, where forest sustainability seems to be taking a back seat to deforestation, drawing condemnation from the community of nations.
But are economics and sustainability always at odds? How do we preserve the benefits of forests without short-circuiting their potential to create and sustain jobs?
One means of doing so is through forest certification, a voluntary, non-governmental process in which an independent third-party certifies that a forest is being well-managed for a range of important environmental, social and economic values.
Consumers can look for a certification label when purchasing fiber-based products to help drive responsible sourcing and resource management, thereby using their power to drive sustainability.
This has led my team of researchers at the University of Georgia to examine whether market-based, non-state forest governance works and whether it can fit with existing and evolving government regulations to encourage sustainable forestry.
By way of background, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI)’s Fiber Sourcing Standard encourages best practices in forest management. It is designed to be used by organizations that may not own or manage land but do procure wood directly from non-certified forestlands. With SFI Fiber Sourcing, companies are required to help educate landowners on sustainable practices, which includes measures to protect forest biodiversity and water quality while using well-trained forestry professionals to ensure appropriate forest management.
The SFI Fiber Sourcing Standard is particularly useful in Georgia because small, family forest landowners own over 58 percent of forestlands and supply the majority of roundwood for the production of various finished wood-based products. Very few of these landowners follow any certified forest management standard. Encouraging more family forest landowners to implement best management practices is critical for ensuring the health of Georgia’s forestlands. It also has the chance to advance rural prosperity.
Our study found that the implementation rate of best management practices was higher on those family-owned forestlands which were located within the procurement areas of mills certified to the SFI Fiber Sourcing standard. This suggests a voluntary, market-based approach to encouraging good forestry in Georgia is working. At least 80 percent of the forestland in Georgia is positively impacted by the SFI Fiber Sourcing Standard, which again, means better water quality and more economic opportunities for the state.
The results of the study are applicable to 1.3 billion acres of forestlands under private ownership across the world, especially in tropical and temperate countries where up to 48 percent of forestlands are in private ownership.
This innovative and inclusive approach which channels the power of markets for ensuring forest sustainability is working in Georgia. It could be a model for how family forest landowners can do forestry right — not just in this state but across the United States, Canada and in similar jurisdictions worldwide.
Dr. Puneet Dwivedi is an Associate Professor in Forest Sustainability Sciences at the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @PuneetDwivedix.