Get a rare, behind-the-scenes look at a sustainable forestry certification audit with third-party auditor Richard Boitnott, who has been doing Sustainable Forestry Initiative® audits for 22 years.
LAKE CITY, Florida—When asked whether sustainable forestry certification makes a difference, Richard Boitnott can recall more than 20 years of providing feedback through audits that resulted in companies throughout the U.S. better-demonstrating their sustainability.
As a third-party auditor with Bureau Veritas, Richard Boitnott determines whether forestry companies are meeting the requirements of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative® (or SFI). He has scrutinized hundreds of forests.
On rare occasions, there are perfect audits. More often, they are excellent, but there are opportunities to improve—and that’s what certified companies are looking for. Rather than reaching one level of sustainability and staying there forever, certified companies want to continuously improve and strengthen their efforts to protect and sustain the forest ecosystem.
“Those are really the best audits: the ones where you have a finding that you know you’re helping them improve their system, and they recognize it, and they recognize the fact that you helped them improve their system,” Richard says.
There are also times when a company seeking sustainable forest certification may need a lot of guidance before they are initially certified. Richard takes pride in the impact that kind of guidance can have on the way the land is managed.
“If there was not forest certification, a lot of land would be managed without that push to reach higher sustainability standards,” says Richard, who has been an auditor for 22 years. “Forest certification is what forces a change.”
In this article, we will explore various aspects of sustainable forestry certifications, including the certification process, objectives, audits, and the importance of continually raising the bar for environmental and social sustainability in the forestry industry.
- What is a sustainable forestry certification?
- What are the SFI sustainable forestry certification objectives?
- How do timber companies become certified for sustainable forestry?
- What happens when a sustainable forestry certification entity audits a forest owner?
- What happens when a sustainable forestry certification audit identifies something that went wrong?
- What happens when a company does exceptionally well, reaching far beyond the minimum SFI standard?
- How to know if a company is certified for sustainable forestry?
What is a sustainable forestry certification?
Sustainable forestry certifications such as SFI, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) are standards used to ensure the highest environmental standards in the forestry industry.
There are standards that address forest management all the way from preparing the land for planting to the way the trees are harvested. There are also standards for mills that process logs and the companies that make forest products you buy in the store. You can look for sustainable forestry certification labels when you buy forest products such as wooden, paper, and cardboard items to ensure they come from a sustainably-managed source.
In forest management, the standards ensure the entire forest ecosystem will thrive.
The SFI guidelines verify that forest owners are only harvesting a small percentage of their overall land base. With well over 90 percent of the company’s forests in some stage of growth, this practice ensures a continuous wood supply as well as a plentiful array of forest ecosystems in different stages of the forest life cycle. The standards also enforce methods to protect waterways from sedimentation and chemicals.
Protecting vulnerable habitats
Forest certification standards also ensure that the habitats of vulnerable species are carefully protected. For example, foresters set up and protect a large boundary area around bald eagles’ nests as long as the nest exists. To learn more about that, watch our video, How Foresters Protect Bald Eagles.
There are also species you may have never even heard of that foresters are trained to recognize and protect. In the Red Hills region of Alabama, Rayonier foresters protect the extremely rare Red Hills Salamander, which was only discovered in the 1960s. You can learn more about this unique creature and the work we do to protect it in our video story, Foresters Protect Rare Salamander Found Only in Alabama.
Newer standards under SFI are aimed at climate smart forestry, which are forest practices that will help prepare forests to better withstand future changes in climate; fire resilience and awareness, which ensures the use of practices to protect forests from wildfire and educating the public about it; social measures, such as having a diversity, equity and inclusion policy; and collaboration with indigenous peoples.
For companies like ours, we were implementing best practices long before we became certified, but the certification proves from an outside perspective that we are sustainably managing our forests. Rayonier has been certified by the SFI standard in the U.S. since 2001 and the FSC and PEFC standards in New Zealand since 2004.
What are the SFI sustainable forestry certification objectives?
SFI has more than 40 performance measures and 130 sustainable forestry indicators in the forest management certification standard, which are categorized under the 17 objectives below:
- Forest management planning
- Forest health and productivity
- Protection and maintenance of water resources
- Conservation of biological diversity
- Management of visual quality and recreational benefits
- Protection of special sites
- Efficient use of fiber resources
- Recognize and respect Indigenous Peoples’ rights
- Climate smart forestry
- Fire resilience and awareness
- Legal and regulatory compliance
- Forestry research, science and technology
- Training and education
- Community involvement and landowner outreach
- Public land management responsibilities
- Communications and public reporting
- Management review and continual improvement
To view the entire SFI standard, visit forests.org/standards.
How do timber companies become certified for sustainable forestry?
If a company wants to be certified for sustainable forestry, it must apply to the certification body, pay an annual fee based on acres managed and net sales and show that it meets certain requirements.
Once the application is accepted, the company must incorporate all of the certification body’s standards into the way it does business.
Once the standards are implemented, the company will then undergo third party audits of its documents and forests to ensure it measures up to the standards.
When the company is officially certified, the external audit reviews will continue annually.
The goal of each audit is to verify that the company is doing a good job protecting its forests, but it is also a way to uncover ways to do even better. Every certified company is looking to constantly improve and fine-tune its practices to ensure it is doing the best it can possibly do with its forests.
Companies also conduct internal audits more frequently. Additionally, many state forest divisions periodically audit the companies’ forests for Best Management Practices (BMPs) compliance. BMPs are guidelines established by the state to ensure waterways are protected. Reports from each of these audits are also a part of the annual third party audit.
What happens when a sustainable forestry certification entity audits a forest owner?
During a sustainable forestry certification audit, there are two segments: auditing documents and auditing forests.
What happens during the document portion of an SFI forest audit?
On a recent annual audit at Rayonier’s Headquarters in Wildlight, Florida, Richard spent the entire day in a conference room reviewing about 500 documents with Rayonier employees. He screened the documents for compliance with more than 130 different SFI indicators.
The requirements include everything from the technical way forests are planted, managed and harvested to social standards such as indigenous relations and DEI policies. The employees were expected to be able to quickly locate the documents and expound on any details Richard asked about.
What happens during the field portion of an SFI forest audit?
The second portion of the audit included several days in the forest. Each day, Richard would select specific sites he wanted to see in person. An auditor often examines documents to find an example of something that didn’t go as planned, such as a weather event or a miscommunication with a contractor.
The auditor will then go to the location to observe what happened and question the responsible foresters about the decisions made relating to that incident. The auditor will also ask general questions to test the expertise of the forester.
During the 2023 Rayonier audit, Richard went into a Lake City, Florida, forest with several Rayonier foresters. He quizzed them about what they would do to protect an eagle’s nest if they were to find one. He asked them about soil types and their methodology for choosing which tree species to plant on each plot. He checked to see if an herbicide aerial application had ceased where the forester had designated.
Protecting properties of special importance
The SFI standard also calls for forestry companies to protect properties with special importance. Forester Joe Geisel, a Resource Land Manager at Rayonier, explained that one location within that forest had been the site of a tragic accident. Two wildland firefighters had been killed while battling the Blue Ribbon Wildfire of 2011.
Joe showed the auditor two memorials that had been established honoring the men where they had passed. He maintains the site in their honor. The memorial is included in an annual staff ride in which the Florida Forest Service honors the memory of the firefighters and teaches staff what can be learned from the accident. You can learn more about the staff ride in this article by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.
Foresters also protect sites believed to have historical significance, sites where there is habitat for threatened or endangered species, special trees, water features, cemeteries and other geologically or culturally important sites.
An example of a protected site on Rayonier land is Brooks Sink, Florida’s largest sinkhole. Rayonier partnered with the Suwannee River Water Management District to divert more water into the sinkhole, which replenishes the Floridan aquifer. Read more about the project and watch a video in our article, Working Forests Protect Water Quality Across the U.S.
Research is a component of good forest management
The SFI forest management standard also requires certified organizations to be active in research efforts. At Rayonier, we have an in-house research team and also participate in cooperative research with other forestry organizations and universities.
One recent cooperative effort between Rayonier, the University of Florida and the Suwannee River Water Management District is seeking ways to improve water flow in streams by changing how we manage the forest. Rayonier is also working internally and with partners to delve deeper into ways forest managers can identify climate risks and mitigation efforts, which aligns with SFI’s 2022 additions to the Forest Management Standard.
You can learn more about some of the work our research team does in our video and article, Rayonier Scientists Bring Deep Knowledge to Forest Management.
What happens when a sustainable forestry certification audit identifies something that went wrong?
While every company hopes to perform well in an audit, there is usually room for improvement because the audits are intentionally rigorous.
“All you want is honest feedback,” says Ben Cazell, Rayonier’s Senior Manager of Sustainable Forestry. “Folks have a passion and self-ownership of the ground they manage and make decisions on. They want to ensure that they’re doing things correctly. So, perfection, it’s not always going to happen. It’s nice to hear, ‘Good job. Well done.’ But it’s also good to hear, ‘You could do a little better in this aspect of one thing or another.’”
For example, SFI has new standards around climate smart forestry that have helped companies develop new ways to address and anticipate climate change.
When something is seriously out of alignment with the SFI standards, an auditor deems it to be either a minor or major “nonconformance.”
“A minor nonconformance means the system is bent. A major nonconformance means the system is broken,” Richard explains. “Now, most people have been in this business long enough where they don’t get majors. They know what to do to avoid a major. A minor is more common.”
The difference between a minor and major nonconformance in an SFI audit
An example of a minor nonconformance might be one mishap in which sediment went into a stream, Richard explains. A major nonconformance would be 3 or more instances of sediment seeping into waterways.
There is also a milder level of feedback called an ”opportunity for improvement.” Richard explains:
“Not everything we do in this business is black and white. There are lots of shades of gray. And I only call something if it’s clearly a nonconformance. If it’s not, and I think, ‘Well, you ought to pay attention to this,’ that’s an opportunity for improvement.”
Richard says, for him, the best audits are when his findings bring about a positive change in a company.
“When I get to the end and they tell me, ‘You’re right. We could’ve done that a little bit better. We will do better.’ I like to hear that, because that means they accepted it, they agreed with what I found, and they’re going to work to get better. Those are really the best audits.”
What happens when a company does exceptionally well, reaching far beyond the minimum SFI standard?
On rare occasions, a company will receive recognition for a practice that goes well beyond the SFI standard and sets an example for peers to follow.
This recognition, called a “notable practice,” is a special honor to those who receive it.
Ben recalls one example in which Rayonier was recognized for using winch-assisted logging on steep slopes in the Pacific Northwest. The winch machine anchors into the ground on a stable, flat landing area and using a powerful cable to support heavy equipment on the steep ground below. The machinery improves safety for the logging crew. It also decreases the impact on the environment, often replacing the need to build a road on the slope.
The notable practice we received was for the reduction of road construction by using this newer technology. You can read more about winch-assisted logging and watch our video of a winch assist machine in action here.
How to know if a company is certified for sustainable forestry
Forestry companies share their sustainability certification information on their websites and often in their reports and investor documents.
You can also verify their membership on the website of the certification body, itself. For example, SFI has a database of its member companies at sfidatabase.org, PEFC has a database at pefc.org/find-certified and FSC has a database at search.fsc.org/en/. Each website publicly posts members’ third-party audit reports.