What do Louisiana nonindustrial, private forest landowners think about forest certification?

Linda Benedict, Vlosky, Richard P.  |  4/23/2008 3:57:29 AM

Richard P. Vlosky, Priyan Perera, Michael A. Dunn and Glenn Hughes

According to the U.S. Forest Service, timberland nationwide totals 504 million acres with the South accounting for approximately 40 percent, or 203 million acres. Forests cover 14 million acres, about 50 percent of Louisiana's land area, making it the state's greatest single land use. Twenty-three percent of U.S. softwood timber and 44 percent of hardwood timber are grown in the South, accounting for about 55 percent of the total U.S. annual roundwood harvest. As such, southern forests are often referred to as the “wood basket” of the nation.

The forest sector plays a key role in Louisiana’s economy. For example, the forest sector generated more than $4.5 billion in value (farm gate plus valueadded) in 2005 and has more than 28,000 employees. In addition, forests provide Louisiana landowners and the public many amenities, including recreational value, aesthetic enjoyment, wildlife habitat and water quality.

Southern forests are predominantly owned by non-industrial private forest (NIPF) landowners – defined as private forest owners who do not own or operate wood processing facilities – which include farmers, miscellaneous individuals and non-forest-industry operations. Of the 203 million acres of timberlands in the South, approximately 90 percent (181 million acres) are privately owned either by forest industry or NIPF landowners. The remaining 10 percent is collectively owned by federal, state and local public entities. NIPF landowners account for the greatest share of timberlands with 4.9 million landowners owning 71 percent of the forestland in the South. An estimated 144,000 Louisiana NIPF landowners own about 62 percent of the state’s timberlands.

Forest management certification is an assessment of the effect of forest activities against standards agreed to as significant and acceptable to stakeholders. Certification can be an internal assessment by an organization of its own systems and practices (first-party), an assessment by an association or trade group (second-party) or by a neutral entity (third-party). Third-party organizations pass judgment on the environmental performance of products rather than leave assertions to product manufacturers themselves. Presently, forest certification is being provided by third-party organizations that claim to have no self interest in a specific forest activity, are not stakeholders in the forest being certified and can assure the public of independent and professional judgment.

This study, conducted in 2005-2006, reveals how well NIPF landowners in Louisiana understand forest certification, their willingness to pay to become certified and their general perceptions about the certification process and implementation requirements. We surveyed 1,200 randomly selected Louisiana NIPF landowners who owned 10 acres or more of timberland in 2005. A total of 306 usable surveys resulted in an adjusted response rate of 29 percent (after accounting for undeliverable questionnaires).

More than 74 percent of respondents owned 200 acres or less of timberland in 2004; only 3 percent owned 5,000 acres or more. Over the previous 10 years, respondents acquired 142,370 acres of forestland and sold 385,187 acres. This corresponds to an average acquisition of 514 acres and average sales of 1,381 acres. Thirty-two percent of respondents ranked timber production as the most significant reason to own timberland. The second most important reason was to pass on the property to their heirs. This was followed by recreational purposes, as a land investment and to enjoy the privacy that the forest offers.

Eighty-one percent of respondents harvested timber products during the time they owned forestland. Sawlogs was the main product harvested (59 percent of respondents), followed by pulpwood (53%), chip-n-saw (15%) and posts/poles (10%).

Respondents were asked about their perceptions of the need for forestland certification by U.S. owners. Respondents gave top priority to national and state forests followed by tropical forests. Non-industrial private forestland was ranked last. Respondents were also asked to rank their level of agreement regarding the impetus for certification in the United States. Highest ranked were environmental organizations followed by forestry organizations, certifiers and certification consultants. Consumer demand ranked last.

Landowners were asked questions to reveal their knowledge of certifica tion. Forty-six percent said they understand the concept of forest certification well or to some degree, and 52 percent felt certification can improve the forestry profession in United States. In addition, results suggest that respondents were not sure how wood products manufacturers or consumers would react given the choice between certified and non-certified products.

Forty-eight percent of respondents believed certification would add an unnecessary level of regulation on private lands, and 20 percent felt federal or state laws make certification unnecessary. Table 1 summarizes additional responses regarding attitudes about certification. Fortyone percent had a positive perception of forest certification and believed that it can promote sustainable forestry. However, 53 percent of respondents said they were skeptical of public willingness to support certification and further elaborated that they believed consumers are confused by the proliferation of certification schemes. Figure 1 indicates respondents’ level of trust of various entities to implement and monitor certification in the United States. Private landowner organizations and professional foresters approved by certification organizations were the most trusted. Environmental organizations, identified by respondents as the main driving force for certification, were the least trusted.

Cost of certification was a concern for both NIPF and industrial forest landowners. Although certification programs are voluntary, landowners often have to incur costs associated with modifying and implementing programs in order to become certified. Results indicate that a majority of respondents (78 percent) were not willing to bear any of the cost of certification.

Certification can be an opportunity for NIPF landowners, but landowners must plan and act years in advance to capture this potential opportunity. If certification continues to gain momentum in the marketplace, the pressure of participating in certification may reach NIPF landowners.

Although many respondents said they understood the concept, many seemed to know relatively little about the nuances of forest certification. Many were not averse to having certifiers monitor their forest management activities, and they appear more likely to support certification if there are no conflicts between landowner objectives and certification procedures and if the cost to certify can be justified.

Private landowner organizations and approved professional foresters were seen as the most trustworthy to administer certification. Therefore, these groups could be a conduit of information to NIPF landowners to introduce them to certification concepts and programs. This approach would also mitigate respondents’ concerns that the forestry community was not adequately involved in the certification discussion.

(This article was published in the winter 2008 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)
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