“Half of the Great Northern Forest, the green crown of our planet, is situated in Russia.” Anna Kosnikovskaya
It was an unseasonably warm day in late March in the North Country when six members of a Russian sustainable forestry delegation walked into our headquarters in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
Sporting a mix of clean Patagonia-style outdoor gear and stylish parkas, they could have easily passed for American graduate students.
A week earlier, we received an email from the World Affairs Council of New Hampshire asking if DCI would host a delegation of Russians interested in Silviculture for a visit to learn more about our sustainability practices.
Were they academics, foresters, activists, or scientists? What was the goal of their visit? Our interest was piqued. Who were these far flung strangers and why were they interested in our work?
Of course, living in the remote reaches of the north country, it was hard not to let our imaginations run a little Red Dawn wild given the fractious history we share with Russia.
But thankfully that’s history now and pretty soon we learned more about their mission.
Exploring Sustainable Forestry in America
The Russian sustainable forestry delegation was touring America as part of the U.S. State Department’s International Visitor Professional Development Leadership Exchange Program.
In particular, they wanted to learn more about sustainable forestry and silvicultural practices in the United States.
They were an astute group, fluent in conversational english, and armed with questions that would help them understand more about our company’s sustainability practices.
By the time they arrived at DCI, they had already visited areas of interest in the Mid Atlantic, Midwest, and Northwest.
According to the professional objectives outlined by the Department of State, the delegates were here to:
- Explore best silviculture practices in diverse U.S. forestlands, both government and privately owned
- Explore best practices in public and private forest management and monitoring
- Examine sustainable forest economy and logging practices, as well as the role of commercial enterprises in implementing and managing sustainable practices
- Understand the role of community engagement and advocacy in forest management and sustainability.
And in terms of DCI specifically, they wanted to talk about:
“…the great lengths you go through to ensure that you are only using wood that goes through the selection harvesting process (one that is designed to improve the health of the forests). The conversations would focus on why you have put an emphasis on this process, how you ensure your wood is properly harvested, as well as the benefits you see in this program.”
To this end, we had a lively and engaging discussion with the Russians.
Among the Russian sustainable forestry delegation, there was a mix of graduate students and NGO forestry advocates. And before getting into the details of the exchange, let’s quickly review some basic forestry terms.
What Is Silviculture?
What is silviculture and what is selection cutting? And what do these have to do with sustainable forestry?
Silviculture is a system of sustainable forestry that nurtures the long-term health of both the forest and its inhabitants. It includes different approaches to logging based on harvesting intensity and impact on the ecosystem.
The selection model of harvesting timber emerged from the study of old growth forests. It’s an approach to sustainable forest management which, according to wikipedia, “manages the establishment, continued growth, and final harvest of multiple age classes (usually three) of trees within a stand.”
In the context of silviculture, selection cutting is considered one of the most sustainable approaches to forestry and harvesting timber. It’s also one of the primary modes of logging that we use at DCI, and qualifies us to certify our logs as FSC chain-of-custody.
FSC in Russia & America
One of the first things we explored with the Russian sustainable forestry delegation was the FSC certification scheme. It turns out there are some perceived differences between the standard here and in Russia.
According to one member of their team, the FSC brand doesn’t have the same sterling reputation in Russia as it does here in the States.
In the United States, FSC is considered the most stringent and trusted standard for sustainable wood.
In Russia however, one member of the team explained to us that FSC certification often serves as cover for poorly enforced forest management regulations and, in the final analysis, amounts to greenwashing.
At the same time, it’s important to note that not everyone in the delegation felt the same way about FSC.
Some on the Russian team feel that FSC is still a net positive in terms of changing the logging practices that are destroying pristine russian forests.
One of the delegates is currently working on a Ph.D, researching a fundamental description of forestry (silviculture) and developing a general theory of forestry and its economic basis.
Land Ownership and Policy Enforcement
We were interested to learn more about the FSC discrepancy that they were highlighting. And we learned that land ownership and accountability are at the heart of the issue around FSC in Russia.
The Russians were intrigued to learn that we work mostly with coalitions of private landowners to secure our logs. In Russia, in contrast, the State owns all the forests.
What does that mean in terms of sustainability? Apparently quite a lot.
Following The Rules
First, we explained that we work with groups of private landholders and state foresters. And because we use only FSC-controlled logs, the loggers and landowners are subject to strict environmental regulations.
We are also bound by the FSC certification to periodically audit the loggers to make sure they are in compliance with FSC-endorsed logging practices.
This model of working with small landowners makes it easy to ensure that loggers uphold FSC standards. And in truth, the Russians were surprised if not a little skeptical to learn that we did keep tabs on the loggers and their practices.
Why were they surprised?
Dealing With A Lack Of Oversight
The delegation explained that enforcing regulations is much harder in Russia because the State owns all of the forest lands. The state then leases parcels of forested land to the timber companies for up to 49 years.
And although there are sustainability regulations in place, they are rarely enforced. As a result, there is little incentive for the companies who lease the land to follow the regulations.
This is bad news for the forests.
But what does this have to do with the skepticism around the FSC certification?
The chief criticism from the Greenpeace report is that FSC in Russia fails to distinguish sustainable forest management practices from unsustainable forest exploitation. If that’s true, it’s especially concerning given the following fact.
Russia has the second largest area of FSC certified forest in the world (after Canada). An area of 38.5 million hectares of Russia’s forests is certified under the FSC system.
100 Million Acres
After talking about FSC, we moved on to another fascinating topic related to forest management in Russia.
Members from the delegation are currently working to address an issue related to an outdated law that allows loggers to harvest trees on abandoned agricultural lands.
In total, we’re talking about 100 million hectares of forests that are slipping under the regulatory radar.
Because of an arcane law that prohibits forest growth on designated agricultural lands, nearly 100 millions acres of forest which currently grows on that kind of land is unaccounted for and therefore unregulated.
According to Greenpeace Russia:
Part of these are old forests, which remained on farm lands and were unaccounted for after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the rest are new forests which have started to grow on abandoned agricultural lands…Most of them are completely forgotten, and have no clear status. This means that they’re often logged without restraint or simply burned, releasing CO2 and black carbon into the atmosphere.
It’s a staggering volume of land accounting for 10% of all the forest in Russia. Consequently, some members of the delegation are working to change this single law because the impact would be so large if they succeed.
As Greenpeace describes it:
If we can regulate these 100 million hectares of “illegal” forests in a smart way, they could be a big part of nature conservation and restoration. Just by changing this one bit of legislation, it would be a huge win for biodiversity in Russia: more trees could be planted, sequestering carbon, and aiding the fight against climate change. We could turn previously empty land into a huge carbon sink.
How Interested Are Your People In These Issues?
Finally, the Russian forest activists were interested to see our zero waste manufacturing plant in action, but before we went to tour the DCI factory they had one last question.
They were curious to learn about the level of public interest and engagement related to sustainability issues. As you can imagine, this was an interesting and complex topic to explore and our time together was running out.
DCI founder and CEO Henry Kober emphasized how the policy influence of the current administration was creating a generally negative focus on environmental policy. With each administration, he said, we see the ebb and flow of environmental policy, regulation, and enforcement.
At same time, our primary engagement with the public comes through our college and university customers and communities. In that context, we have seen a steady increase in emphasis on sustainability practices based on the interest of younger generations.
Unlike the baby boomers, who had to fight an uphill battle against entrenched interests to get the environmental movement off the ground and catalyze a sea change in values, students today simply assume that colleges and universities follow sustainability best practices.
In short, we’ve witnessed a steady and inexorable shift towards sustainability values among students and school administrators, independent of political whim or wind.
And with that, we took a whirlwind tour of the factory. They saw how we burn our sawdust for renewable biomass fuel, where we use our UV-light cured no-voc finish, and much more.
It was a short visit to be sure, but we were inspired and uplifted to meet kindred spirits and share information and best practices.