Sustainable Forestry

These terms are buzz words in environmental circles - but not everyone grasps their meaning or ramifications.

In the UK, the forestry industry can boast both a UK Forestry Standard and the UK Woodland Assurance Scheme (UKWAS).

SUSTAINABILITY

The UK Forestry Standard was first published in 1998 and sets out the Government's approach to sustainable forestry. It provides a firm basis for much of forestry thinking in the UK.
It was developed following international work, such as that at the Ministerial Conference on the Protection of European Forests, in Helsinki in 1993, which defined sustainable forest management as:

"The stewardship and use of forests and forest lands in a way, and at a rate, that maintains their biodiversity, productivity, regeneration capacity, vitality and their potential to fulfil, now and in the future, relevant ecological, economic and social functions, at local, national and global levels, and that does not cause damage to other ecosystems".

So sustainability has various components. Sustainable forest management takes into account:

  • (a) ecological or environmental needs, such as protecting forest ecosystems, and social needs, such as public recreation.
  • (b) to be truly sustainable, however, forest management must also take into account economic needs.
  • (c) social sustainability involves people's interests, well-being and aspirations now and in the future.

Sustainability can sometimes be achieved in the absence of active management - non-intervention. But usually in the UK, sustainable forest management requires a hands-on approach.

There is wide recognition that neglecting woods leaves them vulnerable to deterioration and decline, and that active management can, where appropriate, be extremely beneficial, offering dividends for woodland owners and for society.

Forestry is addressing the wider needs of Society.

(a) Environmental Sustainability

The threats to woods and forests here are numerous and range from inappropriate activities (for example intensive public recreation or stock grazing in an ecologically sensitive wood) to more insidious threats from pollution, drainage, acid rain, climate change, disease, invasive plants and the activities of certain animals, particularly deer and grey squirrels.

(b) Economic Sustainability

A significant proportion of income from woods is from timber sales. Woodland management and processing directly supports 35,000 jobs in the UK, many of which are related to the harvesting and processing part of forestry. Sixty per cent of these jobs are located close to the forest, thereby helping to provide rural employment. However timber is a global commodity and prices for most products are determined on world markets: world timber prices are at an all-time low. Only products with niche markets can avoid this. Woodland owners and managers often cite low timber prices as a reason why woods are not managed.

Woodlands provide many other products and services besides timber, some of which are readily saleable. Shooting rights have for many years provided an income from woodlands, while new forms of recreation are increasingly seen as commercial opportunities.

Woods provide great benefits to society, and when economists value some of the 'non-market benefits' (such as landscape value, wildlife or public access), it becomes clear that, in many cases, the wider public receives more benefit from woodland management than does the owner who provides those benefits.

However, for woodlands to be sustainable, it is essential that the rewards from looking after them outweigh the costs to the owner. In many (but not all) cases, this will mean that management either makes money for the owner or is cost-neutral over time. The sale of products from woodland will generally be the main source of income but, in addition, public support should have a role to play, particularly where public benefits are being put in jeopardy because the costs to the owner of providing those benefits is too high.

(c) Social Sustainability

The key role that forestry plays in the wider social agenda is reflected in the work of the Community Forests. The benefits of woodlands for local communities are wide-ranging and diverse. They play an important role in addressing many social objectives and current Government priorities in assisting neighbourhood renewal and tackling social exclusion.

The contribution to the social agenda that publicly accessible local woodlands can make is now being recognised and understood. The quality of life benefits cover raising health standards by providing a green and healthy environment and improving physical and mental well-being through opportunities for quiet enjoyment and peaceful contemplation. A range of recreational opportunities can assist in improving physical fitness and recuperation from disease or ill health.

Woodlands in rural areas too can contribute towards issues of exclusion that rural communities face. Woods not only provide direct social benefits to rural communities themselves, but woodland open to the public can also act as a focus for tourism, helping to diversify rural economies. Where there are concerns about visitor impact, woodlands and forests have the capacity to absorb large numbers of visitors with relatively little detriment to the local environment.

In England and Wales, the demand for public recreation in the countryside is likely to be heightened by the recent Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) Act, which includes among its provisions a 'right to roam' by foot on mountain, moor, heath and common land. Woodland is specifically excluded.

Public recreation is an example of a public benefit for which a woodland owner may see little or no private gain, and indeed may incur loss of capital value, costs and inconvenience.

CERTIFICATION

The UK Woodland Assurance Scheme (UKWAS) was launched in June 1999 with the backing of a wide range of organisations in the environmental and forestry sectors. This voluntary scheme for the independent assessment of forestry management in the UK was a world first. It is the only national standard for sustainable forest management that has the support of all interested parties. UK timber growers can use the scheme to assure buyers and retailers that their wood products come from forests managed in an environmentally sound way.

Independent certification against UKWAS is a way that woodland owners (and therefore governments) can demonstrate that woodland is managed sustainably. Where 'chain of custody' certification is arranged, this gives owners the chance to sell timber into those markets seeking the assurance of sustainably grown timber.

Many Forestry Commission woods are now certified against the UKWAS standard. The costs of certification are an important factor discouraging woodland owners, particularly owners of small woods, from seeking certification. But that does not mean they are not caring for their woods responsibly or sustainably.

Worldwide, several independent certification schemes exist. The main one so far in the UK is the Forest Stewardship Council.

The FSC is a non-profit making organisation, founded in 1993 by professional foresters, environmentalists and human rights organisations to support environmentally appropriate and socially beneficial management of the world's forests. It gives its stamp of approval to wood products that have come from forests managed to high environmental standards. Any timber product with the FSC trademark will have been tracked from source to shops by independent inspectors so consumers can confide that it comes from a truly sustainable source.

PEFC, as a UK member, PEFC UK Ltd www.pefc.co.uk. and the UK Certification Scheme has already received international endorsement by the PEFC Council.

More: For more information and a list of retailers of FSC certified wood products in the UK see www.fsc-uk.info.

  • FC publication FCMS014. UK Indicators of Sustainable Forestry (2002).
  • FC publication FCMS003. Introduction to the UK Woodland Assurance Standard (2003).
  • FC publication FCFC001. The UK Forestry Standard : the government's approach to sustainable forestry. (2004).
  • FC publication Misc.12. Sustainable forest management : the international framework (2002)

The new UKWAS standards run from 2006