Managed Forests and Tree Farm Certification

The American Tree Farm System (ATFS) is holding their annual convention in Madison WI in October, 2007.  The Tree Farm website announces the convention as an “Excellent opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of the ATFS in Wisconsin.  Wisconsin’s excellent forest management and sustainable forestry practices will be showcased at the convention.”  One of the features is the boast that Wisconsin’s Managed Forest Law (MFL) program is now “certified” by the ATFS. 

Our family has one 40 acre area still enrolled in the MFL, and we received a letter from Paul DeLong, Wisconsin’s State Forester, happily announcing that we were magically and without any fee, now “certified” by the ATFS.  We are now part of the world’s largest group certification program – 36,000 members with 2,000,000 acres in the Wisconsin  MFL! WHOOPIE!!    (anything free is worth what you pay for it, and free money always has a high cost)

Government and Industry Forestry Propaganda is well developed these days and is fully cloaked in “sound forestry” = “Sustainable Forestry” – even “Green” terminology.  Reading the websites, brochures, management plans, certification requirements…   it all sounds perfect.  Wisconsin’s forests are in Great Shape – every one is practicing sustainable resource management – Things are good!  But in the woods, there is a totally different reality.  Talk to average forest owners, talk to loggers working in the woods, and view actual timber harvests - and you will find “Forest Devastation goes on as before”.

Once upon a time, I was a volunteer Tree Farm Forest Inspector.  Later in life I was the first Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Certified Forester, Woodlot Owner, and Chain of Custody Small Business Owner in the region.  FSC Certification was a $30,000 investment(expense) for my business.  I have worked in the woods for 40 years!  I know the issues here!
My opinion is - all forest ‘certification’ in Wisconsin is a SHAM! 

It is a great idea – proposed by Aldo Leopold 70 years ago.  Certification looks great on paper,  but the implementation of all certification programs in the forest - is very poor and has lost all meaning here in Wisconsin!  If it works for you, fine - this is just my experience.

The Real Situation Today:
Rising land values and skyrocketing property taxes force thousands of forest owners to enroll in the State’s Managed Forest Law – to be able to afford to keep their property.  They are schmoozed with the promise of ‘Sound Forestry’ and sign a professionally prepared and worded management plan to qualify for the tax breaks.  They agree to harvest their ‘mature’ timber – the only mandatory practice in the MFL.  Forest owners lose control of their forest to outside professionals and are usually pressured to do large timber harvests to ‘regenerate’ their lands.

Forest owners often feel they need government assistance since they have never been paid a fair price for their timber.  Market conditions have always put the forest owner at a severe disadvantage when selling timber, and they are paid less than the cost of production for their trees.  All other segments of the timber industry make income and profit, yet the grower doesn’t make significant income.  There has never been an alternative for forest owners, you either take what the timber industry offers or leave your woods idle.

MFL is damaging to Wisconsin, the forest, and the forest owner. 
It is a crutch for the forestry profession, supporting their precarious position.
The timber industry has eagerly gobbled up all the trees put on the market by MFL.
Use value taxation on timber land is a better option to promote forest management – keep the playing field level.
Development values put an unreasonable pressure on forestry business.

But, the Timber Industry is failing in Wisconsin

One page of the Tree Farm Convention Website does mention there are problems in the woods.  Gene Francisco is quoted writing, "Our forest products industry is in crisis."

Despite the ‘sustainable’ and ‘certification’ hype, the loggers in the woods have always been forced to over-harvest and high-grade the forest.  Timber buyers also typically short-change the forest owner, further discouraging landowners from managing their timber in a responsible manner.  Compared to Germany/Europe - Management here is a Disgrace.

Now, the industry has cut about all the good timber available for harvest – so the average size of harvested logs, and the average quality, is much lower today than several decades ago.

Logging machinery has evolved to huge mechanical harvesters that need to process large volumes just to make the bank payments.  Forests are steadily being divided into smaller fragments due to the high value for development and recreation.  Smaller tracts of poorly managed forest cannot feed the big machines anymore. 

Now, foreign imports of manufactured wood products are flooding the markets.

The result:
Timber Corporations are selling out, profit-taking, down-sizing, and headed south.
Timber Growers and loggers who have supplied the industry for over a century are tossed aside - spent.

Logging companies are going out of business every day.  In the mentioned article by Gene Francisco, Executive Director of the Great Lakes Timber Professional Association, he quotes a survey of logging contractors – “67% said they were in danger of downsizing or going out of business because of the current business climate in the logging sector.  The top five reasons impacting their profitability are:  poor markets (several big mills have closed), high fuel costs, high stumpage costs, 30-40% cuts in delivered mill prices, and increased operating costs.  37% reported that they are not able to meet their financial obligations for operating costs….    Now is the time to help save what is left of our forest products industry.”  Francisco warns of a “domino effect on the environmental and the economical health of our State if the forest products industry fails.”

Everyone in the Timber Industry is just holding on to business as usual, for as long as they can, before the inevitable and well-known impending crash – extracting what money they can for themselves.   It is all about GREED.

Forest owners face deteriorating market conditions that will further discourage responsible forest management as the industry continues to crumble.  Those who stay subservient to the traditional system will be dragged down with it.

But! A New Timber Market is Emerging!

Other forest owners have taken control of their resources and developed a new timber market system where things look much brighter.  Small woodworking businesses that sell natural finished products direct to their customers are able to compete with imported manufactured wood products in the big box stores.  Most customers would choose locally grown and manufactured natural wood products, over imported and highly manufactured wood products – if given the choice.  By eliminating all the brokers, middlemen, and shippers, small business can keep all the retail value of their timber harvests in the local economy.  All the tools, methods, information, and markets are currently available today. 

Small forestry businesses selling direct to customers in the local area don’t need a global “certification” label to sell their wood.  Profitable small forestry business operations would not need any government subsidies or tax breaks – their forests would pay their fair share of the local revenue needed.

Forestry must be Profitable, for it to ever be Sustainable.    Birky