Making Species & Grade Choices for Good Forest Management
Choosing For Function, Not Convention
As the FSC market has grown, many product and project specifiers have come to understand both the benefits and importance of using FSC-certified products. While certification is the critical first step in a purchasing decision, two other often overlooked issues — species and grade — have substantial implications and demand close consideration.
Given the number of species and grade options for most products, selection can be complicated. But the basic principles that should guide decisions are relatively simple:
• Work with a range of certified suppliers to determine your species and grade options. Make sure your specification decisions are based on what’s actually available. To ensure that your decision meets your needs, ask for samples, test them if necessary, and seek out referrals to successful projects.
• Base decisions on the functional requirements of your project or product, not just conventional choices. Conventional choices often lag far behind the realities facing forest managers and do a disservice to healthy forests and communities. In non-FSC markets, the disproportionate demand these conventions create often contributes to severe environmental, social, and political problems, particularly in developing countries.
• Use the lowest grade necessary for your functional and aesthetic needs. Using higher than necessary grades increases costs, limits availability, and unnecessarily contributes to market pressure.
Choosing a Species
Most high demand species have become popular for good reasons, usually their aesthetic and physical properties. But the relatively small number of popular species is far outweighed by the underutilized and underappreciated species available today. Coming to understand the diversity and beauty of a wider variety of species is a fascinating experience and a key to responsible purchasing.
In the Pacific Northwest, Red Alder presents a prime example of how a species can move from relative obscurity to reach its market potential. Twenty years ago, Alder was viewed as a nuisance and had almost no value. Today it’s the second most valuable timber species in the Northwest, even out-pacing Douglas Fir.
Cliff Chulos, President of North American Wood Products, an FSC certified distributor in Portland, was involved in the development of the Alder market. “It was clear that Alder was an undervalued and abundant species with great properties. In our case, we put a lot of time into figuring out what our customers needed to use more of it. Once we figured out color consistency and grading that met the needs of our customers, the market was off and running.”
While certainly an important concept in North America, the use of lesser-known species plays an even larger role in the tropics where the diversity of merchantable species is enormous. “Using lesser-known species really does help tropical communities. When producers have markets for 20 certified species instead of just the three well known ones, they can manage their forests more holistically,” says Mark Comolli of ForestWorld, an importer and distributor focused on tropical species and FSC certificate holder. Similar to farmers growing a diverse array of crops, having a broader range of species also buffers both producers and buyers from individual species’ market fluctuations.
Determining a Grade
The basic premise behind the concept of grade implications is that the highest grades of a particular species typically represent only a tiny portion of overall harvest volume. Most of that high-grade material comes from older trees and thus older, more ecologically significant forests.
Specifying only the highest grades forces market pressure and high prices on already limited resources. That concept is amplified in emerging FSC markets, where limited timber supplies and a functional chain-of-custody may be additional challenges. Using the lowest grade that meets your needs is the key to making a responsible choice and keeping costs to a minimum.
Using high-grade materials is not inherently bad, however. Certain applications require the highest grades and by using material from large trees we encourage the growth of large trees. By requiring high-grade materials to be FSC-certified, you can ensure that their use doesn’t contribute to unsustainable harvesting.
The key to a successful and responsible decision is to understand your options in the market. Ask suppliers before you specify! Below are database tools to help connect to FSC suppliers in your area.
Metafore Certified Wood Database -
FSC International Database -
You can also send an email with product specifications directly to email@example.com.
Ian Hanna is the Director of Northwest Certified Forestry for Northwest Natural Resource Group (www.nwcertified.org) and can be reached at 360-379-9421 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNRG’s current priority is to support the growth of a profitable, sustainable, and environmentally sound timber industry in Washington State, primarily through their Northwest Certified Forestry program for small landowners. NNRG has been a long-time advocate for FSC certification in the Northwest and continues to work to make certification affordable, functional, and accessible to everyone participating in the forest products economy.
This article is part of the following newsletter: September 2005