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Forest certification is a globally implemented, voluntary program to ensure that forest products originate from certified land that is managed with a goal of sustainability. This article presents a basic overview of forest certification, different certification systems, the process of certification, and emerging concepts in forest certification.


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Forests provide aesthetic, ecological, economic, recreational, and spiritual values to society. Forest certification assures the public that the benefits and functions of the forest, including clean air and water, wildlife and plant habitat, soil health, and recreation, are maintained or protected during management and harvest.

Forest certification identifies land that is managed with a goal of sustainability. Sustainable forestry can be viewed as a “three-legged stool" in which the legs represent the economic, ecological, and social aspects of forest management. Certification also ensures that management does not diminish the value of the future forest, nor create hardships for local communities. Certification is strictly voluntary; any landowner can participate.

Certification systems assure consumers that the product they are purchasing meets certain standards. Forest certification refers to an independent, third-party evaluation of the management of a particular forest against a certain standard. A certification logo or tag on a wood-based product alerts consumers that wood used to produce that product is from a certified forest.

Forest certification originated in the early 1990s after the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as a means to protect tropical timber from deforestation and forest degradation. By certifying the management of certain tropical forests, wood products made from that timber could be labeled as "certified" to track the sources of wood products and to ensure consumers that the products are from sustainably managed lands. Forest certification has since been implemented in North America and virtually all timber producing regions across the world.

About 1 billion acres, or 11 percent of the world's forests, are certified. In the United States, recent data shows that about 95.4 million acres, representing about 13 percent of total forests, have been certified with at least one certification system (Alvarez 2018). About 39 percent of those 95.4 million certified acres are in the southern states. In 2017, only 8.9 percent of the total forestland in North Carolina was certified. Despite several ongoing efforts in landowner outreach and stakeholder engagement, net certified forest area in the United States has remained relatively stable for the past decade (Alvarez 2018).

Why Certification?

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Forest certification has been an essential part of forest management in recent years, as it has direct influences on forestland ownership, forest product marketing, and forest stewardship. Some of the perceived benefits of forest certification include

  • greater access to markets,
  • a price premium from some buyers,
  • a healthier forest,
  • better environmental practices,
  • better long-term management planning,
  • less waste,
  • personal and community pride in knowing the forest is well-managed, and
  • a path for the continuous improvement of forest management.

Are There Costs of Certification?

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Forest certification can be costly to a landowner and includes direct and indirect costs. Certification assessment is a direct cost. Assessment costs vary depending on the size of the acreage, the certification system, and other factors. A landowner may be further required to pay to join the certifying organization. Required changes in record-keeping and monitoring necessary for certification can also add annual costs to forest management. Some of the perceived positive and negative factors associated with forest certification are listed in Table 1.

Table 1. Perceived positive and negative factors associated with forest certification.

Strengths and Opportunities

Weaknesses and Threats

  • Better prices
  • Retain/gain access to better markets
  • Recognition among peers
  • Better management practices (BMPs, improved forest management practices)
  • Better worker training
  • Sustainable forest management
  • Corporate social responsibility
  • Environmental conservation
  • Coordination among managers (group certification)
  • Costs (auditing, additional costs in forest management) and time
  • Limited knowledge on perceived benefits
  • Standard criteria to follow
  • Cumbersome certification paperwork/process
  • Limited resources
  • Lack of policies or stringent policies
  • Abstract idea—too much science

Forest Certification Programs

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In the United States, three major forest certification options are available for landowners. These certification programs include the American Tree Farm System (ATFS), the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). These certification programs differ in genesis, cost, philosophy, membership requirements, implementation, and recognition.

American Tree Farm System (ATFS)

The ATFS is a program of the American Forest Foundation (AFF), a national nonprofit organization. The ATFS was started in 1941 as a means to promote the benefits of scientific forestry at a time when leaders of industry felt that America's private forests were being cut at unsustainable rates (ATFS 2019). ATFS has been endorsed by the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), the largest certified program for family-owned forests worldwide. Landowners can become ATFS members only after an inspection of their property and management plan by a professional forester who is trained as a Tree Farm inspector. ATFS membership is open to any individual or organization owning between 10 and 10,000 contiguous forested acres, however, state government agencies and publicly traded companies are excluded. See the Appendix for more about the ATFS.

Requirements for certification include

  • a written management plan that incorporates the landowner’s objectives; the current condition and health of the forest; and management prescriptions for wood and fiber production, soil and water quality protection, and conservation of threatened and endangered species, special sites, and forests of recognized importance.
  • inspection of the property by an ATFS volunteer forest professional. If the property meets the ATFS Standards of Sustainability for Forest Certification, the landowner receives the recognizable diamond-shaped Tree Farm sign.
  • monitoring and verification of the certified property every five years to maintain Tree Farm certification status. In North Carolina, the landowner must pay to obtain ATFS certification (L. McCormick, personal communication, May 2019).

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)

The Forest Stewardship Council was founded in 1993 by loggers, foresters, economists, environmentalists, and sociologists to promote "environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial, and economically viable management of the world's forests" (FSC 2019). FSC seeks to ensure that forest management maintains the forest's biodiversity, productivity, and ecology. The FSC standard includes a social component that acknowledges the sustainable forest management benefits to local communities and society. FSC advocates the balancing of economic objectives with ecosystem objectives and the well-being of the local community.

FSC certification includes a product label certifying that management, harvesting, processing, and manufacture of the product met FSC certification standards. While FSC creates the standard, accredited third-party organizations do the actual certification assessments. In the United States, accrediting organizations include Scientific Certification Systems, SmartWood, and SGS, among others. A landowner interested in FSC certification may contact these certifiers directly.

Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI)

The Sustainable Forestry Initiative was adopted in 1994 by the American Forest and Paper Association as a means to improve the health and sustainability of industrial forestland in the United States. The SFI standard for forest management includes principles, objectives, performance measures, and core indicators that must be met in order to earn designation as a sustainably managed forest (SFI 2019). SFI is overseen by the Sustainable Forestry Board, an independent organization created to maintain and enhance the standard and assessment procedures. The majority of forest industry land in the United States and Canada is certified under SFI.

The SFI program recognizes the ATFS, meaning that ATFS-certified land is valid under the SFI program. Similarly, the Canadian Standards Association and PEFC recognize the SFI program.

Types of Forest Certification

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There are four types of certification: (1) forest management, (2) chain of custody, (3) group certification, and (4) fiber sourcing standard.

Forest Management certification, the most common type of certification, evaluates the management of a specific piece of forestland against an agreed-upon standard. Certification can be specific to a single tract even though the forest manager may own or manage other forests. All three certification programs have forest management certification standards.

Chain of Custody certification provides a system for tracking wood from the forest to the finished product. Chain of custody certification is available to manufacturers, mills, distributors, and retailers who purchase, use, or sell certified wood. A chain of custody system, coupled with a product label identifying the certification system, assures the public that the wood product labeled "certified" was produced from a well­-managed forest. The certification label helps concerned consumers and responsible forest managers buy and sell products that come from well-managed forests. At present, all three programs offer chain of custody certification, and the FSC and SFI have product labels.

Group Certification: All inspection and verification processes in forest certification can be costly. Group certification is a new approach to U.S. forest certification programs designed to reduce the cost of certification to each individual owner by combining forestland under one professional or one certificate holder. Certified groups have a common manager or management team that does not hold title or have any legal or management right to the property. The group manager is someone contracted by the landowners based on some commonality: proximity, family ties, or a single forestry consultant. The FSC and the ATFS offer a group certification option, and SFI also plans to make it available in North Carolina in coordination with ATFS.

The group certification program under ATFS is a third-party auditing process that promotes the banding together of individual forest owners to comply with ATFS processes. In addition, group members agree to manage their forests to the ATFS's Standards of Sustainability. The FSC Group Certification program, which was started in 1995, certifies a group's forest management model and philosophy as implemented on selected lands. The enrolled group properties must be managed to either the full FSC standard or the abbreviated Family Forests Certification standard. This model lends itself to certification of consulting foresters, resource managers, landowner associations, cooperatives, land trusts, and other woodland owner or management groups. The group manager must meet all the technical and procedural requirements of an FSC forest management certification.

Fiber Sourcing Standard: This program is primarily for wood procuring firms that do not own or manage land themselves. SFI introduced this program for the period of 2015 to 2020, which has been extended to December 2021. This program ensures that raw material in the supply chain of these wood procuring organizations comes from legal and responsible sources, regardless of the certification status of the forestland (SFI 2020). The fiber sourcing requirements include measures to implement best management practices (BMPs) to protect water quality, encourage practices to promote biodiversity, and organize landowner outreach activities.

The Certification Process

The certification process is usually different for the different certification types as well as certification programs. Before selecting the certification system, a landowner wishing to have his or her forest property certified will first need to examine the eligibility, philosophies, requirements, and costs of the three available certification systems.

The main steps in the forest certification process include

  • selecting an appropriate certification system,
  • contacting the certifying organization,
  • gathering information and materials about your forest and management activities,
  • undergoing a verification audit,
  • receiving the certification report with decision,
  • implementing required changes, and
  • scheduling follow-up audits at regular intervals.

Regardless of the certification program, the landowner or his or her forest manager will have to meet that program's standard. Each certification program has its own standard, developed in collaboration with varied forestry interests that consider scientific knowledge and applicable laws. The standard describes the criteria (or performance measures) that must be met for the forest to be certified. These criteria include documentation (plans and records) as well as actions in the forest, such as installing stream buffers, managing road layout, and protecting soil conditions.

  • Indicators are used to determine if the criteria are being met.
  • Verifiers are the evidence supporting the indicators.

Independent assessors compare indicators to the management records and the performance in the forest, looking for verifiers (evidence) that meet the criteria. Forests that do not meet the criteria may be given time to implement changes so that they can be certified. Successful certifications may be good for one to five years. Based on certification system guidelines, re-audit processes are required and follow an established timeline.

All standards require an up-to-date, written forest management plan, which should be in place before pursuing certification. Prior to starting the certification process, a landowner should work with a consulting forester to assess readiness to proceed with the process. Preparing for the audit takes time and requires an organized method of comparing the management of the forest, record-keeping, and various other aspects of ownership to the requirements of the chosen standard.

The standards for all systems cover elements such as water quality, wildlife habitat, aesthetics, biodiversity, and chemical use. Often there are criteria in the standards that do not apply to all land, in which case there is no requirement to meet that particular standard (for example, a standard regarding chemical use when there is no use of or plan to use chemicals). Rigorous forest certification systems contain standards related to both process and performance.

  • Process-based criteria examine the systems in place that would "catch" activities that violate laws, policies, or procedures.
  • Performance-based criteria evaluate what is actually applied on the ground and compare it to the standard.

A total cost estimate for the audit should be provided to the landowner before the audit. Some programs will require advance payment to the certifier.

Emerging Concepts in Forest Certification

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Forest certification continues to grow in application worldwide, particularly on large or industrial properties desiring access to better markets. At the same time, the certifying programs are evolving as they strive to become more affordable and accessible to owners of small forests. The future may bring more consolidation of certification programs through mutual recognition, and certification is expected to remain a strictly voluntary, market-driven approach to improving forest management. More family forest landowners will likely get on board with forest certification when they feel it is a cost-effective and useful marketing tool for their timber.

More Focus on Small Landholdings and Group Certification

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The FSC-US Family Forests Program (FFP) is tailored to the small, nonindustrial forestland ownerships common in North Carolina. The FFP is offered in the United States for forests or a group of forests fewer than 2,470 acres in size, or low-intensity managed forests that harvest less than 20 percent of the average annual growth. The FFP greatly streamlines the certification process while maintaining the integrity of the FSC standard with the goal of making FSC certification more accessible to small-scale private landowners.

Recently, the SFI partnered with the ATFS to offer the Small Lands Group Certification Module to North American forests containing up to 20,000 acres (ATFS 2020a; SFI 2020). It offers certification to a group of small-scale family forestlands under a single certificate, which allows landowners to sell fiber and SFI program participants to procure fiber as certified forest contents. Lands certified through this module in the United States will be certified under the ATFS with a feature of “certified forest content” under SFI’s Chain of Custody Standard. Certification to the SFI Fiber Sourcing Standard is a prerequisite to achieving this small lands group certification. This module is still in the early stage.

Some forest product companies such as Enviva also assist landowners with forest certification through the establishment of an Independently Managed Group (IMG) under ATFS and FSC. The IMG primarily plays a facilitating role and works to address barriers to forest management certification and challenges landowners face.

Landscape Level Certification

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The landscape management plan (LMP), created by AFF, assists landowners in effectively and efficiently certifying lands collectively (Crow 2018). The LMP approach encourages landowners’ engagement in forest conservation and their participation in certification and assistance programs. Rather than working on an individual property level, LMP ensures that ATFS certification standards and criteria apply across the forest ecosystems in the region. If the landowner’s goals align with the rest of the region’s, the landowner may choose this plan rather than having a traditional forest management plan written for each landowner. Throughout the pilot experiments, the landscape management plan decreases the landowner certification time from one to two months to one to two weeks. Foresters are able to spend more time with the landowners and thus increase ATFS enrollment. A pilot project in the Florida Panhandle is testing the application of this approach (ATFS 2020b).

Forest Focus is a new platform in partnership with AFF that assists in the verification of fiber sourcing along with forest certification (Pollock 2020). Forest Focus encourages collaborative efforts to promote sustainability and conservation across the landscape. The program gathers data from the U.S. Forest Service and provides landscape-level assessments of sourcing forest products. This approach allows for useful sustainability analysis of issues that brands are most interested in, such as high conservation value forests, use of GMOs, and vitality of local communities.


Skip to References

Alvarez, M. 2019. Certified Forests. U.S. Endowment for Forestry & Communities. Accessed April 2020.

American Tree Farm System. 2019. The History of the American Tree Farm System. Accessed July 2019.

ATFS. 2020a. Small Lands Module Partnership. Accessed June 2020.

ATFS. 2020b. Florida Panhandle Landscape Management Plan Pilot. Accessed June 2020.

Crow, S. 2018. Verifying Sustainability at Meaningful Scale: The Landscape Approach. Accessed April 2020.

FSC. 2019. Who We Are: An Open Member-led Organization. Accessed July 2019.

Pollock, T. 2020. Forests in Focus Landscape Assessment. Accessed April 2020.

SFI. 2019. SFI 2015-2019 (Extended through December 2021) Standards. Accessed July 2019.

Additional Forest Certification Resources

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American Tree Farm System
c/o American Forest Foundation
2000 M Street NW, Suite 550
Washington, DC 20036
Phone: (202) 765-3660
Fax: (202) 827-7924

Forest Stewardship Council U.S.
708 First Street North, Suite 235
Minneapolis, MN 55401
Phone: (612) 353-4511

Sustainable Forestry Initiative USA
2121 K Street NW, Suite 750
Washington, DC 20037
Phone: (202) 596-3450
Fax: (202) 596-3451

Appendix: Comparison of Certification Programs

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Certification System

American Tree Farm System (ATFS)

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)

Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI)


American Forest Foundation (AFF)

Forest Stewardship Council

American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA)

Year Established




Primary Scope

US: Nonindustrial private landowners with 10,000 acres or fewer

Worldwide: All forest ownership types

US and Canada: Industrial forests





Basis for Participation



Required for AF&PA members; voluntary for others



Board of directors and


Sustainable Forestry Board

Standard Development

Independent, multi-stakeholder panel; approved by the AFF Board of Trustees

Committees of members and stakeholders with public input

Sustainable Forestry Board with public input

Verification Options

Second party

Third party required

First, second, or third party

Eco-label Implemented




Chain of Custody System Implemented




Certified Acres in the U.S. (Millions)





Commitment to practicing sustainable forestry; compliance with laws; reforestation and afforestation; air, water, and soil protection; fish, wildlife, biodiversity, and forest health; forest aesthetics; protect special sites; forest product harvests

Compliance with laws and FSC principles; tenure and use rights and responsibilities; indigenous peoples’ rights; community relations and workers' rights; benefits from forest; environmental impact; management plan; monitoring and assessment; management of high conservation value forests; plantation management

Sustainable forestry; forest productivity and health; protection of water resources; protection of biological diversity; aesthetics and recreation; protection of special sites; responsible for fiber sourcing in North America; legal compliance; research; training and education; community involvement and social responsibility; transparency; continual improvement; avoidance of controversial sourcing, including illegal logging in offshore fiber sourcing


Research Assistant
Forestry & Environmental Resources
Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist, Forest Economics
Forestry & Environmental Resources
Undergraduate Student
Forestry & Environmental Resources

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Publication date: June 30, 2020

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