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Forest Management

Sustainable Forest Management: 5 Common Misconceptions

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Standards for sustainable forest management vary widely depending on prevailing forest environments. Such standards can only be defined at a national or regional level through democratic legislative or other participatory consensus-building processes. But this is not widely understood and too often assessments of “sustainable forestry” rely on simplistic generalisations and misconceptions. Many of these generalisations are persistent and potentially damaging, undermining genuine efforts to promote sustainable practices. Below we discuss some of the more common misconceptions.

1. Certified Wood is Equivalent to Sustainable Wood

Due to lack of awareness of alternatives and of major changes in the policy environment for forest products, technical requirements for “sustainable wood” are often equated with FSC and PEFC certification in many green procurement policies of both governments and corporations.

However these technical requirements are increasingly out of step with the growing recognition that the major problems associated with forests in some parts of the world, such as deforestation and poor governance, cannot be addressed through forest certification.

Requirements focused only on certification also do not accommodate the need for broader metrics of sustainability in the forest products sector and to recognise the importance of other issues not covered by forest certification including:

  • carbon footprint and other life cycle impacts;
  • transparent information on national forest governance;
  • the quality of forest resources at national and regional level;
  • clear data on species volume, growth and harvest;
  • efficient use of the full range of species and grades;
  • product durability;
  • waste management and disposal

Forest certification systems like FSC and PEFC require compliance with a wide range of good forestry practices to be demonstrated by an accredited third party. It also requires that wood be traced through the supply chain to a certified forest management unit. The concept has proved valuable for buying organisations seeking to demonstrate that their timber products derive from well managed forests.

However, certification has certain limitations. While it can work well when timber is traded in large and relatively undifferentiated commercial volumes from large state and industrial forest holdings, it is technically more challenging to implement where forest management units and supply chains are more fragmented.

Analysis of FSC and PEFC certified forest area data highlights that nearly all growth worldwide in the last decade has been in larger state and industrial forests, notably in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. There has been very little recent progress to extend forest certification amongst smaller non-industrial, community and indigeous forest operations. These are often the very operations that are, in practice, the most sustainable from the perspective of rural development, social welfare and natural forest conservation.

In addition to discriminating against smaller forest operators, another limitation of certification is that it cannot substitute for good forest governance and is open to abuse where this is absent. Where corruption is endemic, and someone wants to commit fraud intentionally, it is comparatively easy to manipulate a system like FSC which relies on annual paper-based audits.

For example, corrupt state-owned forestry enterprises in Ukraine managed to hoodwink FSC auditors year on year, supplying IKEA with illegally logged, certified timber 1.

It is this realisation that has led the EC and other authorities in the EU, to conclude that neither FSC nor PEFC certificates are an adequate assurance, in isolation, that timber is at negligible risk from illegal harvest. It has also highlighted the importance of a risk-based approach to responsible timber sourcing in which the first step is to assess the quality of forest governance in a supply region by combining data on forest resources with information on forest laws and institutions.

That being said, in countries which do have effective forest governance, certification can be a force for good. Rewarding those who do manage sustainably and hence, encouraging others to do the same. But as a rule, certification should not be taken at face value, and other measures such as EUTR, the Lacey Act and FLEGT need to be fulfilled in order to help guarantee the wood being bought is not from an unsustainably managed forest.

2. Timber from plantations is more sustainable than timber from natural forest

Plantations can be environmentally benign. But they can also be very harmful if they replace more diverse natural forests, as is often the case. Management of plantations for timber is often more energy intensive and requires more chemical input than the management of natural forests for timber.

logs by the side of a track in a plantation, plantations are often thought as more sustainable than natural forest
Plantation in Harrogate UK, Photo by Spurwing Agency on Unsplash

The concept of “natural” forests is also often poorly understood. In many parts of the world, forests have been affected by human intervention for generations and even those forests which appear to be unmanaged are more accurately described as “semi-natural”. Most of the “ancient woodland” sites still in existence in the UK were preserved over the centuries only because of their value to local communities as a source of fuel, animal fodder and building materials. In the past, these woods were very actively managed to maximise production of these goods, often through coppicing, a practice that can make a very positive contribution to biodiversity and which greatly extends the lifetime of an individual tree.

The concept of “natural forests” is also often linked, mistakenly, to that of “old growth”. The underlying notion is that left to their own devices, trees will always grow old. But even under natural conditions in many parts of the world, it is unusual for forests to remain undisturbed and to evolve into “old growth”. For example, fire disturbance forms a natural component of the boreal forest eco-system that cover vast swathes of North America and Northern Euroasia. In Sweden forest fires would occur on average every hundred years under natural conditions. As a result, “old growth” forests tend to develop only in wetter areas, for example in ravines close to rivers.

Obviously in some countries it is possible to draw clear distinctions between “plantations” and “natural forests”, but in others it is not. The forest resources and management history of each country has to be taken on its own merits and decisions about forest production and protection taken accordingly. Suggesting that plantation management is more or less “sustainable” than natural forest management is meaningless.

3. Softwoods are more sustainable than hardwoods.

Many people seem to hold this view on the grounds that “softwoods grow more quickly than hardwoods”. There is no relationship whatsoever between rate of tree growth and the “sustainability” of a wood product. Even the slowest growing hardwoods can be managed sustainably if the area of forest is large enough and the length of time between harvests long enough.

Furthermore, hardwood forests often lend themselves more readily than softwood forests to so-called mixed age management, involving the limited removal of only the most mature trees from a forest stand. Such management can be very beneficial: providing wildlife habitats, preserving bio-diversity, and creating beautiful landscapes. And hardwood products can be naturally durable, reducing the need for preservative treatment.

4. Softwoods and temperate hardwoods are more sustainable than tropical hardwoods.

It is almost certainly true to say in general terms – when referring to European and North American woods – that the risks of buying an “unsustainable” tropical hardwood are greater than the risks of buying an “unsustainable” softwood or temperate hardwood. This is simply a reflection of the fact that systems of forest regulation tend to be more highly evolved and enforcement procedures more effective in rich industrialised countries than in developing countries where tropical forests predominate.

But the reality is that there is good and bad management in both temperate and tropical regions. For example, much legitimate environmentalist criticism over recent years has been directed towards the serious over-exploitation and illegal harvesting of softwood and temperate hardwood forests in the Russian Far East, particularly to supply the emerging Chinese market.

There are certainly cases of appalling forest management in tropical regions. But there are also serious efforts to implement sustainable practices in parts of the tropics. The best way to support these efforts is to continue to purchase sustainably managed tropical hardwoods. Sustainability may be demonstrated by way of independent certification programmes like the FSC or PEFC in combination with other measures such as FLEGT licences and conformation with EUTR standards.

Field of green soy leaves at sunset
If forests are not utilised there is greater incentive to convert them to cash crops such as soy, Photo by Meredith Petrick on Unsplash

There is also an increasing array of legality verification and stepwise certification systems which, while not guaranteeing “sustainability” demonstrate that suppliers are progressing in that direction. Without this support, there will be an even greater temptation to convert tropical forest to supply those cash crops that are readily marketable – palm oil, cocoa, coffee, soya beans and cocaine.

Those tropical forests that are sustainably managed for timber will have very strong environmental credentials. For example, FSC certification in the Congo basin has gone hand in hand with very far-reaching measures to reduce poverty and improve living conditions in very remote rural communities.

5. The notion that “clear-felling” is necessarily “unsustainable”

There is no doubt that large clearcuts, carried out with no concern for environmental or visual impact, can be seriously destructive. There are also certain forest types, for example those growing on steep unstable slopes or in very hot dry climates, that should never be clearcut.

However, there are several legitimate reasons why clear-cutting continues to be used, subject to controls, in many areas. There are certain boreal and temperate tree species, such as Douglas Fir, that are naturally adapted to fire and extensive forest disturbance. These species need a lot of light to grow and won’t regenerate properly in the shady conditions produced by partial cutting. 

5 female elk in a clearing
Elk forage in clearcut forest to prepare for winter, Photo by Gabe Pierce on Unsplash

And certain boreal wildlife species are also adapted to forests where extensive natural disturbance is the norm. For example, elk requires an abundance of young trees, present in clearcut areas, to provide fodder over the winter months.

Where extensive damage has been caused to a forest by fire or insect damage, clearcutting is normally used because it is usually much easier to re-establish a new forest on a cleared site.  Clearcutting is therefore an appropriate practice in many forest eco-systems, but it must be subject to strict control and regulation, and mirror natural ecological processes.

  1. Earthsight, 2020, ‘Flatpacked Forests’, Earthsight, https://www.earthsight.org.uk/flatpackedforests-en#group-Summary-rayWKL9K1I[]
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