Canadian Biomass Magazine

Forest certification in Canada: Trends and turbulence

February 24, 2016
By Tony Rotherham

February 24, 2016 - There are some unusual things going on in forest certification. The trend lines are heading in different directions.

Figure 1 shows 2000 to 2015 year-end trend lines for the three certification programs used in Canada.

Figure 1.

The CSA Standard, developed specifically for use in Canada’s publicly owned forests, was an early leader but lost popularity starting in 2008 and has now dropped into third place with about 41 million hectares (ha) – mainly in Western Canada. It is also used by Corner Brook P&P in Newfoundland and Labrador and the Algonquin Forest Authority in Ontario.

SFI has shown steady growth since its introduction in 2000. SFI is now the leader with 88 million ha of forestland certified to the requirements of the SFI Program.


The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) started a bit later than the other two programs but showed steady growth between 2002 and 2013. Then things started to change. FSC reported 61 million ha certified in Canada for 2013 but at year-end 2015 only 50.6 million ha (FSC Canada), a reduction of 10 million ha (or 16 per cent). There has also been a reduction of FSC certified area in the United States. 

During 2014, four FSC certificates totalling 4,308,755 ha were terminated and five certificates covering an additional 8,382,119 ha were suspended. If a certificate is suspended, is the forest area still “certified”? 

This is a startling reversal. Why has FSC lost so much ground?

There are probably no simple, firm answers to this question. My colleagues in the U.S. and Canada have indicated that the FSC has been adding many new requirements to standards and causing companies to reconsider their use of FSC certification. FSC is generally behaving more like a regulator than a standards and certification organization. 

All of this does not help to build a positive image for FSC – loss of clients results.

In early 2016, people in the forest industry started to talk about the effects of Greenpeace’s Motion 65 that was approved at the September 2014 FSC General Assembly. Motion 65 adds a requirement to the current FSC forest management standards. Motion 65 requires that 80 per cent of the core of all intact forest landscapes within the forest management unit be protected from human disturbance – in this case, forest management operations.

“Intact Forest Landscapes (IFLs) are defined as unbroken expanses of natural forest ecosystems showing no signs of significant human activity, and large enough (minimum 50,000 ha or approximately 123,000 acres) that all native biodiversity, including viable populations of wide-ranging species, can be maintained. FSC Motion 65 directs national FSC organizations and auditors to develop, modify or strengthen auditable standards to ensure FSC certification is safeguarding Intact Forest Landscapes in areas that are FSC certified.”

What might Motion 65 mean in the Canadian forest management context?

If a forest management license covering 500,000 ha was issued in 1965 we can expect that about half of the area would have been subject to harvest and regeneration operations during the first 50 years of operation to 2015.

The other half of the license (250,000 ha) remains without much sign of human activity and is growing the wood to be harvested in the second half of a 100-year management plan. But 80 per cent (200,000 ha) will have to be set aside to meet the new FSC requirement, leaving 20 per cent (50,000 ha) to supply wood for the next 50 years of operation. Looks like a mill shutdown is coming soon – bad news for the mill owner and worse for workers, their families and the community.

This is not the type of requirement usually found in a forest management standard. It sounds a lot like forest land use planning. In Canada, the provincial governments have constitutional and legislated responsibility and authority over forest land use policy and forest management regulations. This looks like a clear case of Greenpeace and FSC stepping into the regulator’s shoes. 

The Quebec government has reacted strongly to the prospect of the imposition of Motion 65 on Quebec forests and Minister of Forests, Wildlife and Parks Laurent Lessard has stated clearly that the Quebec government will not accept interference in Quebec forest policy by a “third party.”

The Quebec Forest Industry Council has written to FSC suggesting that all Quebec companies holding FSC certificates will have to drop FSC certification if this results in a further loss of wood supply on top of significant reductions in provincial AAC since 2000. The companies have stated they can run their operations without FSC certification, but cannot run their mills without wood. 

What happens if Quebec turns its back on the FSC?

What would a forest certification trend line graph look like if the Quebec industry dropped all FSC certificates covering 28 million ha of forest land? See figure 2 below. This is unlikely, but who knows?

Figure 2.

It is worth noting that the forest industry in Ontario has an additional 14 million ha of forest management licenses in the boreal forest with FSC certificates. These FSC certificates may be dropped as well. 

Forest licenses in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence forest region are much less likely to be considered “intact” as they lie within the more southerly and populated regions of the provinces. 

Perhaps it would help if we took a look at the national picture. Table 1 below outlines, in round numbers, the national forest land use picture as it was before the 2008 recession. 

Canada has 208 million ha of forest that is substantially “intact” and will likely remain “intact” for the forseeable future. This is 52.5 per cent of total forested area and is slightly larger than the combined land areas of: Germany, France, Finland, Sweden and Norway – quite a lot of virtually intact forest. 

On Jan. 11, 2016 the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) sent a letter to the premiers of both Ontario and Quebec, copied to several other federal and provincial ministers and industry associations. It was signed by 13 organizations in support of FSC certification and the conservation of vast areas of Boreal Forest in Canada. The letter notes that “if companies abandon the FSC certification program… it will put at risk the business stability that industry and their customers have enjoyed because of the FSC.” Ominous. 

Russia has 41 million ha of FSC certified forestland. I expect a similar letter has been sent to Vladimir Putin.

I have been a supporter of forest certification since 1994 – it plays an important role in improving forest management and accelerated the implementation of sustainable forest management. The standards provide a comprehensive list of forest values and good practice. The prospect of an audit sharpens the minds of managers. The independent audits provide public and customer assurance. 
I hope the current controversy does not damage the image of the other forest certification programs.

What effect will this controversy have on the future of the FSC in Canada? It is hard to tell, but it looks like a complicated mess that will be very hard to manage. FSC Canada might want to relax the impacts of Motion 65, but the requirements have been set by a decision of the 2014 FSC International General Assembly (The FSC’s Supreme Court).

Greenpeace and the FSC are ambitious organizations, but they are certainly not regulators. In the case of Motion 65, they have stepped over that line. 

In constitutional democracies, governments are in charge of regulation. I think we all prefer to live and work in a country of laws and regulations established through our democratic legislative procedures.

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