American hardwoods do not need to be certified, concludes revised Seneca Creek Study

One of the projects where American hardwoods have been specified (Photo credit: AHEC)


American hardwoods are legal and sustainable in line with all relevant international standards, according to the recently revised Seneca Creek ‘Assessment of Lawful Harvesting & Sustainability of U.S. Hardwood Exports’, as well as the Technical Review Panel commissioned by the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC), to validate the Seneca Creek results. Together the revised Seneca Creek study and the Review Panel conclusions provide a credible, comprehensive and fully up-to-date assurance that U.S. hardwoods are legal and sustainable, and do not need to be certified.

The updated Seneca Creek study concludes that the ‘data and information compiled for the report provides evidence that U.S. hardwood supply chains meet all current due diligence standards as legal and sustainable’. The study also states that ‘the analysis presented in the report can serve as an alternative to forest management and chain of custody certification for purposes of demonstrating low risk of illegal or unsustainable hardwood sourcing from the United States’. These are the conclusions of the Seneca Creek team comprising experts in U.S. hardwood forest management and related policy and regulation.

The team was led by Alberto Goetzl, a leading natural resources economist, with input from: Dr Gary Dodge, a consultant biologist who has worked closely with FSC; Scott Berg, a forest certification expert with years of experience preparing companies for certification under SFI, PEFC and FSC; Dr Stephen Prisley, a leading U.S. expert in forest inventory analysis who is currently the Principal Research Scientist at the National Council for Air and Stream Improvement; and Jazmin Varela and Trevor Cutsinger, both of The Conservation Fund, amongst the largest environmental NGOs in the U.S. with a strong focus on practical measures to conserve forests.

The study confirms that all U.S. hardwood-producing states are at Low Risk of sourcing illegal hardwoods, according to the requirements of the EU Timber Regulation (EUTR), Australia’s Illegal Logging Prohibition Act, Japan’s Goho Wood programme, and the due diligence and risk assessment requirements of the certification programmes operating in America. Drawing on clear, robust evidence from the U.S. Forest Service Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) Program, the study demonstrates that forest growth continues to exceed removals in the hardwood forest sector and that forest area is stable.

The study shows that measurable gains have been made in the effectiveness and compliance with Best Management Practices legislation in all hardwood producing states, and there is widespread use of trained loggers throughout the U.S. hardwood producing region. Every hardwood-producing state now has a logger training and/or independent certification programme, which have contributed to substantial increases in the levels of logger training and professionalism. There has also been a rise in the area of conservation easements (agreements of landowner with government or environmental agency to implement conservation measures). At the same time, the Lacey Act amendment has strengthened scrutiny and control of illegal timber in trade.

Seneca Creek: a model for risk assessment

For added confidence and to ensure a broad perspective, AHEC brought together a high-level technical panel to fully review the updated Seneca Creek study. The panel was chaired by Emily Fripp, an expert in EUTR, forest certification, and timber procurement policies, and included Ann Bartuska, formerly the USDA Chief Scientist who now leads the Land, Water, and Nature Program at Resources for the Future, a U.S. NGO; and Katie Fernholz of Dovetail Associates who has more than 20 years’ experience advising the U.S. forest industry focusing on operations and certification in the non-industrial private forestry sector.

The panel agreed that the updated Seneca Creek study provides ‘comprehensive analysis of risk regarding the legality and sustainability of U.S. hardwoods’ and also found the study ‘to be more focused, logical, rational and defensible than other risk assessment approaches that are currently being applied in the marketplace’ and ‘a model for how future risk assessment activities should be conducted in the U.S.’ The panel concluded that ‘key findings are consistently supported by relevant and high-quality information and deeper analysis within the report’.

In addition to publishing the updated Seneca Creek study, AHEC is also developing tools to ease communication and improve access to the data it contains. This includes a one-page online tool referencing and linking relevant sections and findings of the study to the sustainability criteria of various procurement policies and certification standards. The sustainability statements in the American Hardwood Environmental Profile (AHEP) are also being updated to reflect the findings of the Seneca Creek study. AHEC’s on-line interactive map will also be updated with the latest hardwood forest growth and harvest data from the U.S. Forest Service and to include links to detailed information on state Forest Action Plans.

Structural obstacles to traditional forms of certification

The updated Seneca Creek study and the report of the Technical Panel clearly demonstrate that sustainable forestry practices are firmly entrenched and expanding in the U.S. hardwood sector. It may seem surprising, therefore, that the one metric of sustainability most frequently specified by buyers in some export markets – that timber must be certified – is not also increasing in the U.S. hardwood sector. In fact, the Seneca Creek study confirms that availability of certified U.S. hardwood is very limited, even declining, and likely to remain so in the near term.

The study highlights that the traditional model of certification, involving annual audits of individual forest owners at forest management unit level, remains a significant challenge in the U.S. hardwood sector. It shows clearly that the relative lack of certification is not an indication of unsustainable practices, only of structural obstacles to certification in the private non-industrial sector including fragmentation of ownership, lack of awareness, weak and inconsistent market signals, lack of other incentives, high costs for individual owners, and inappropriateness of existing standards.

This led the technical panel to comment, in their statement on the Seneca Creek study, that ‘the U.S. marketplace for traditional forms of certification, relying on tracking of wood to individual forest management units audited to meet specific forestry standards, is fatigued and ready for alternative solutions’. The panel goes on to suggest that ‘the lack of uptake of certification is not necessarily negative, but simply evidence that third-party certification remains limited as an assurance mechanism for some U.S. owners’. “This study serves to highlight many of the strong environmental attributes linked to U.S. hardwoods, that are not covered within the scope of forest certification. In fact, certification says nothing about carbon footprint, a particularly strong environmental attribute of U.S. hardwoods. By providing comprehensive data on sustainability and life cycle impacts, we aim to be proactive in encouraging specifiers to raise the bar on their environmental considerations. Looking ahead, we want to push for full integration of scientific life cycle data into the design and procurement process, for example through widespread adoption of EPDs and BIM, confident in the knowledge that U.S. hardwood suppliers are able to deliver the data,” concluded Roderick Wiles, AHEC Regional Director.