Assessing Maine's Certified Sustainable Harvest
Forest sustainability certification is the most dominant conservation feature on the Maine landscape — outpacing easements, state and federal land acquisition, and the largest, most ambitious proposals for a Maine Woods National Park. Today, Maine leads the nation, with upwards of ten million acres of forestland, or more than 50% of its timberland, certified by either the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). Despite the profound public policy implications of certification's unprecedented rise in Maine, few studies have directly assessed certification's ecological or silvicultural impact — in Maine or elsewhere. This void has spurred increasing scrutiny of certification's costs and benefits by both environmentalists and forest industry.
Our study takes a first step towards a more thorough understanding of certification's impacts on the forests of Maine. We reviewed the over-arching sustainability goals and specific criteria of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) standards, then looked for specific areas of overlap with field-level indicators derived from the U.S.D.A. Forest Service's Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) Database. We predicted that growth and harvest would be balanced, or trending towards balance, on land certified as sustainable. Having rejected this hypothesis, we then compared ownership categories, certification systems, standards, and forest dynamics to illuminate patterns. Our results suggest substantive differences between study groups: From 1999 to 2012, total removals (harvest and land use changes) exceeded net growth across private certified land, whereas public lands were in balance. The imbalances on private land appear driven by intensive harvest of hardwood species generally, though the region's most valuable commercial species — red spruce and sugar maple — and its largest trees, or sawtimber, consistently showed the most significant imbalances. Of the species assessed, only balsam fir showed significantly more growth than harvest on private, certified land. Overall, FSC-certified lands showed a trajectory towards balance from 1999 to 2012; SFI remained unchanged, with removals exceeding growth throughout the study period.
While our results raise questions, they must be considered only a partial indicator of sustainability or compliance with certification standards. Confidential forest management plans may offer silviculturally sound explanations for the imbalances we observed. However, given the clear variation in management outcomes observed amongst our study groups, more research is needed in order to better understand certification's impacts on the forest.