Forest Certification

Forest Certification ensures that timber comes from sustainably managed forests. Certification identifies forestland that is managed according to well-recognized standards of sustainability. Such programs have been found to be useful in guiding forest policy and management and in improving communication with the public. 

Third party certification is the only reliable way to guarantee that wood being used in processing/manufacturing has been sustainably harvested. This is a good thing for our forest landowners, our value-added producers, and our environment. Only ten percent of the world’s forests are actively managed, and this consumer trend could help to increase that percentage by eliminating markets for non-certified wood.

More 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
  • a path for the continuous improvement of forest management

Certification Systems

In the United States today, there are three recognized third-party certification systems that offer verification that forests are being managed sustainably: the Sustainable Forestry Initiative Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), the American Tree Farm System American Tree Farm System (ATFS), and the Forest Stewardship Council Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

American Tree Farm System (ATFS)

“ATFS is the United States' oldest family forest certification program. ATFS certification gives family woodland owners confidence and validation that they are doing right by their land.”

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)

“FSC certification ensures that products come from responsibly managed forests that provide environmental, social and economic benefits.”

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)

“SFI has a robust set of forest certification standards that enable forest managers in the United States and Canada to demonstrate sustainability while measuring quality, biodiversity, wildlife habitat, species at risk, forest conservation value, forest fiber content, and forest product traceability.”

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 Certifications

There are four types of certifications: (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.


An Introduction to Forest Certification | NC State Extension Publications (
Forest Certification - Vermont Tree Farm
Forest Management Certification (
SFI® Forestry Certification Services | SCS Global Services
American Tree Farm System Certification