Looks Like Up?

A Review of the Public Summary of the

Certification of the Allagash Timberlands of J.D. Irving

by Mitch Lansky


One would think that a forest certified "green" by a third party audit under the Forest Stewardship Council's (FSC) guidelines would be desirable to live near. Certification should be an official stamp of approval for what environmentalists, workers, and communities already recognize as a well managed forest that benefits those who live around it. But this is not always the case.

A review of Forest Stewardship Council certification world wide by Simon Counsell (a founding member of FSC) for the Rainforest Foundation concluded that:

"There is evidence of a generally lax approach on the part of most FSC-accredited certifiers to ensuring that logging operations comply with the FSC’s Principles and Criteria. Most worryingly, many certificates appear to be awarded on the basis of hoped-for improvement in the management of logging operations, rather than actual good quality at the time of assessment. This has resulted in the certification of forestry operations with major failures of compliance with the Principles and Criteria." (Counsell, pg. 5)

It appears this is also the case with the recent FSC certification of 569,520 acres of the Maine Allagash Timberland holdings of J.D. Irving (JDI or Irving) by Scientific Certification Systems (SCS).

This certification comes at a time of industry instability and regulatory uncertainty. At a time when industrial landowners have been selling off heavily cut lands, JDI, however, is buying. With more than 1.5 million acres, Irving is now the largest landowner in Maine. The company seems to be in for the long haul. It also, however, has a legacy of industrial management and labor relations that don't quite fit the image of a "well-managed forest."

The certification summary document shows many past and even present problems, but the certifiers gave Irving high grades (mostly in the 90s) based on recent policy changes and future plans. In some cases, the certifiers minimized the problems by comparing them to even worse practices by other landowners.

The following are just a sampling of problems noted (or in a few cases, blatantly ignored) by the certifiers:

Sustainability. The most basic requirement for certified forest lands is that cutting is sustainable. Yet Irving, through much of the 90s, based on a computer model and management plan was doing some serious overcutting. The summary document stated that the former strategy, "would, if continued, have depleted the growing stock to sub-optimal levels and threatened future sustainability." (PS, pg. 15).

Certification is based on a new management plan, but it is so new that certifiers could not assess whether the plan "was an effective internal document." (PS, pg. 19). Cut of spruce-fir, based on the new plan, will go down 43% from peak harvesting during the 1990s. (PS, pg. 12).

The level of cut at the time of certification was still above Irving's estimate of sustainable levels under its new plan. "The harvest reduction will be phased in over a two-year period, to ease the transition for all impacted parties." (PS, pg. 12).

The new plan still has cut 63% higher than would be sustainable under "no management" (PS, pg. 13). Irving justifies the high level of cut with its computer projections of higher future growth resulting from management. Cutting more than growth based on expected future growth is called the "allowable cut effect" (or ACE). For it to work, herbicides, thinning, and plantations have to lead to predicted yields with no failures due to insects, disease, or weather.

The certifiers praised Irving's "sincere attempt at realism" (pg. 15) in its projections, yet it noted that "Irving did not conduct a sensitivity analysis to estimate potential impacts of future spruce budworm outbreaks..." (PS. pg. 14). When the budworm comes, Irving plans to deal with it through salvage and insecticide spraying. Even this strategy will not prevent a lowering of growth. Irving will deal with the problems as they arise.

Existing landscape. Visitors to the Allagash Timberlands will see a landscape that is the result of many decades of past management. Much of this landscape does not look very well managed. . "The legacy of past management practices lies heavily on portions of the landscape..." (PS, pg. 24).

"Older clearcuts, many of which predate Irving's ownership, were often very large and resulted in a complete loss of structural diversity." (PS, pg. 26)

"...in the past Irving removed or crushed downed woody debris, further reducing the structural diversity of the future stand." (PS, pg. 25). Irving now retains some trees (live and dead) in its clearcuts.

"In addition, many acres that were clearcut and planted resulted in substantial areas of stand conversion." (PS, pg. 25).

According to SCS, "a goal of certification,(...), is restoring heavily managed forests to more natural conditions." (PS, pg. 23). The Irving plan will have mixed results towards this goal.

Intensive management. So far, around 2% of the Allagash Timberlands landscape has been planted, with only a small amount of this in Norway spruce, an exotic species. FSC discourages planting of exotics. The SCS document referred to Norway spruce as a "closely related species" and reasoned that it's use was "prudent" (PS, pg. 27), but they did not recommend its use.

Irving claims that it will be planting in the future to fill in natural regeneration gaps. Yet, over the next 25 years, Irving plans to increase plantations by 350% to 7% of the landscape (PS, pg. 5), which means that 20% of softwood stands will have been planted. Apparently, Irving is anticipating a lot of gaps.

Irving has been doing around twice as much pre-commercial thinning (PCT) as planting. If this ratio continues, in 25 years 40% of softwoods (assuming all PCT is in softwood stands) will have been pre-commercially thinned. This combinined with plantations would mean that 60% of softwoods will have received early stand intensive management.

This implies two things--that much of Irving's spruce-fir management is even-aged, and that planned rotations will be relatively short. Neither of these moves the forest towards "more natural conditions."

Clearcutting (as defined by state) has been reduced to 8% of acres cut annually. The certifiers "did, however, encounter situations where it was questionable whether clearcutting was the only alternative" (PS, pg. 26). The certifiers did not say what proportion of the cut was in overstory removals, which the state classifies as "shelterwood."

During the 90s, Irving was spraying 1,600 to 6,000 acres per year with herbicides in the Allagash district (PS, pg. 5). The SCS team frowns on the "use of chemicals as an expediency or an indispensable facet of broadly-applied silvicultural prescriptions" (PS, pg. 33). They claim that from now on, Irving will only "use herbicides when necessary" (PS, pg. 33). The certifiers believe, apparently, that Irving's plan for "an annual spray rate of approximately 1,750-3,000 acres in the coming years" is necessary (PS, pg. 33). The certifiers noticed the "initial degradation of plant community" following clearcut and spray, an impact that can be measured for years (PS, pg. 35).

SCS also certified nearly a half-million acres of JDI's operations at Black Brook in New Brunswick. The certifiers never asked JDI for a list of the chemicals used or checked chemicals used with FSC's guidelines. Some of these chemicals, the certifiers now acknowledge, "could be interpreted as meeting the characteristics of FSC banned chemicals" (PS, pg. 33). At least one of these chemicals, Garlon 4, was used by JDI on its Allagash Timberlands in 1999.

Partial cuts. Clearcutting is not Irving’s primary silvicultural tool in its Allagash Timberlands. According to the summary document, 77% of cuts are "selection" or other partial cuts (PS, pg. 15). The document did not break this figure down as to what proportion of these partial cuts are true "selection" (to create uneven-aged stands) and what are thinnings in even-aged stands.

Irving foresters, apparently, "are more experienced with implementing final regeneration cuts than they are with managing multi-cohort stands" (PS, pg. 25).

The foresters have 2-4 times the load of acres than other certified operations (PS, pg. 16). They do not have time to mark stands, instead leaving decisions of what trees to cut up to loggers, who have to interpret Irving prescriptions. Loggers do not get extra pay to be forest technicians.

The certifiers "observed a number of prescription outcomes that were less than optimal." The team, however, "is not charging that many outcomes were ‘poor’ to the point of being uncertifiable; just that many could have been much better." As an example, they found examples of "somehat subtle highgrading"--where the biggest and best trees were removed in ways that "compromised the stand’s future growth potential or ability to regenerate to an improved species mix" (PS, pg. 16).

The certifiers believe that at least 40-60% of certified harvested stands ought to be marked, especially those that cannot be cut based on simple rules (PS, pg. 17). Foresters for Baxter State Park Scientific Forest Management Area, for example, mark most of the wood to be cut because mechanical operators can not see crown conditions well from inside the machines. Because cutting decisions at the BSPSFMA are made by foresters, and loggers are paid based on weight (regardless of tree value), this removes the incentive for highgrading, subtle or otherwise.

Forest structure. Forest structure on both a stand and landscape base was a problem area for the certification team.

Irving foresters were inconsistent when dealing with woody debris. "It was apparent to the team that most foresters have more to learn to properly recognize high quality downed woody debris or cavity trees." (PS, pg. 25).

The Allagash Timberlands have serious problems with age structure, which is currently "not well balanced for the purposes of providing a continuous flow of mature timber" (PS, pg. 22). Historically, spruce-fir has been overcut and hardwoods have been undercut. During the 70s, 80s, and 90s, there were a lot of clearcuts in spruce-fir and mixedwood stands, supposedly to deal with the budworm (which went away in 1985). Inadequate markets for low-grade hardwoods help explain the highgraded condition of the hardwood resource. The certifiers noted (PS, pg. 14) that even with Irving's new forest plan, there is still a concern over a continued "serious imbalance."

Age structure is important not only for timber sustainability, but for biodiversity. Key is to assure that there is adequate representation of older age classes in the landscape. With Irving's latest plan, older spruce-fir forests would decrease over the next 25 years (PS, pg. 25).

JDI has specific policies to ensure older stand representation. Within each broad forest type, Irving will maintain at least 10% in "old" and 3% as "very old." Irving did not pass the straight-face test with these standards as it defined "old" as over 70 years and "very old" as over 100 years (PS, pg. 23). The certifiers suggested that that at a minimum, 100 for old and 180 for very old would be more appropriate thresholds (PS, pg. 24). SCS gave Irving its lowest grade (75) for Forest Community Structure and Composition (PS, pg. 21). Since this is below passing grade (80) certification could only be awarded with conditions attached to remedy the problem. In the future.


Roads. Irving imposes a gridwork of roads on the landscape. "A standard criticism of Irving's road network," write the SCS team, "is its straightness and rigid geometric patterns, regardless of the terrain or landscape. We encountered one instance where a minor relocation up slope would have avoided constructing a right-of-way through an enriched old-growth cedar habitat." (PS, pg. 18).

"We also observed site specific instances where putting a slight curve in an otherwise straight road would have avoided a wetland completely..." (PS, pg. 33).

Irving has a mile of roads for every 300 acres (2.1 miles of road per square mile of forest). In contrast, the Fundy Model Forest in New Brunswick (where Irving owns some land) has a guideline to keep road distribution to less than a mile for every square mile of forest to minimize impacts on biodiversity.

Logging. Sixty-five percent of JDI's cutting on the Allagash Timberlands is with feller bunchers and grapple skidders (whole tree harvesting or WTH) (PS, pg. 18). Some certifiers (such as the Silva Forest Foundation in British Columbia) won't certify timberlands that rely on whole tree harvesting, not because they ban the machines, but because it is so difficult to meet guidelines for trail width and distribution, soil disturbance, residual damage, and slash management with feller bunchers and grapple skidders (Vasbinder).

WTH requires wide, frequently distributed trails, leading to excessive areas taken in trails, unavoidable damage (as bunches of trees with tops and branches are pulled down the trails), and much more removal of nutrients than with bole-only harvesting. WTH also requires large yarding areas to process trees--tops, branches and all. While SCS certifiers were pleased that harvesters took slash back into the woods and left it along the trails, they noted that this does not leave the slash well distributed (PS, pg. 28).

The certifiers did not say how wide or how far apart the trails were. They gave no indication of what distribution of roads, yards, and trails would be acceptable. The certifiers gave no figures for average residual damage per acre, nor what an acceptable level of damage should be. These criteria can easily be measured in the field.

SCS certifiers compared Irving’s cutting to other industrial landowners in the region--the "all-too-common practice of simply minimizing short-term operating costs" (PS, pg. 19). Based on such a comparison, the certifiers found the job of implementing harvest prescriptions to be "adequate," "given the time and attention devoted to the process" (PS, pg. 16). While this is a less-than-subtle put-down of typical cutting in area, it is not an adequate unit of comparison for certified harvesting.

Forest soil and forest wetlands. According to the summary document, Irving foresters do not adequately consider soil type when developing harvest prescriptions. The certifiers expressed concern because, "this can lead, in some instances, to soil compaction or desiccation and reduced site productivity, and can specifically influence the success or failure of establishing regeneration of some species." (PS, pg. 28). This concern was not just academic: "We observed some sites with relatively thin soils that had been compacted during harvesting." (PS, pg. 28).

The certifiers were not too happy with some cutting in wet areas, such as cedar or spruce-fir flats. They found "desiccation of the sphagnum moss ground layer" on some sites (PS, pg. 25).

"...at several sites, we observed harvest trails going through very wet areas when there were alternatives that were clearly more benign." (PS, pg. 28).

"...in some instances wood harvested from the wetter sites (...) is of relatively low quality, which is in sharp contrast to the high ecological value of the wetland system." (PS, pg. 28). These types of sites sometimes have such features as vernal pools or rare plant species.

"We did encounter several cases where excessive rutting had occurred..." (PS, pg. 28).

"...in isolated instances, excessive rutting has compromised productivity on a small scale." (PS, pg. 28).

"We did notice a few site-specific examples of erosion, but these were the exception..." (PS, pg. 32). (One would be really concerned if erosion were the rule, I suppose).

Social benefits. When it came to social aspects of certification, the report seriously strains its credibility. Principle #4 of FSC criteria states that "Forest management operations shall maintain or enhance the long-term social and economic well-being of forest workers and local communities." While the SCS team cites evidence that this has not been the case, it gave Irving high scores nonetheless.

The SCS team did a dozen community interviews and concluded, "We found no indication of poor community relationships in these interviews" (PS, pg. 29). As to employees, the document states that, "In our observation, the employees are motivated and enthusiastic" (PS, pg. 42).

During the 1980s, the towns of New Sweden, Stockholm and Westmanland passed local ordinances to curb Irving's aggressive clearcut and spray activities in the area. The town of Allagash lost the majority of its population over the last few decades in part due to raw log exports, mechanization, and Canadian labor imports--trends to which Irving contributed. At the time of certification, loggers set up blockades of the border to Canada to protest export of raw sawlogs and import of Canadian labor. Truckers set up an unrelated blockade of the border at Fort Kent, complaining of Irving's payment policies. Irving pays truckers by weight and by the mile. To break even, truckers felt forced to drive overloaded trucks.

In a recent Maine Times article about Irving's labor practices, a spokesman for the truckers said that workers "are fearful" of the changes Irving is forcing on them and scared of reprisal if they speak out. "That's what happens when a company is the only ballgame in town." (Austin)

The summary document admits that margins in logging have fallen and there are fewer people who want to work in the woods. Irving requires contractors to work their equipment on double shifts (80-100 hours), which means that some loggers work their equipment in the woods at night. Irving suggests that contractors "get used to two shift operations..." (PS, pg. 42).

The summary document admits that "there are many stories of contractor discontent with this management approach. It is easy to see these methods as a form of squeezing against suppliers with little or no bargaining power" (PS, pg. 43).

The SCS team interviewed six current contractors working on the Irving lands. "We found what we would expect to find, in a relationship where some tension is normal..." (PS, pg. 43).

",,,many contractors have only a limited choice of where to work and they feel boxed in."

"Statements that Irving pays the 'lowest rates' in the industry were common, along with statements that other owners are cutting rates to follow suit."

"Mechanical contractors, once having made the decision to invest, often feel pressured to accept whatever terms they can negotiate." (PS, pg. 43).

The certifiers did not mention that rates paid to mechanical operators in other states are double what is paid by Irving in Maine.

The certifiers said the migrant workers (mostly from Mexico) doing thinning and planting are "happy" with their pay--pay so low for work so hard that "the use of migrant workers does not result in any American workers losing employment opportunities" (PS, pg. 44).

Hiring these migrants, according to SCS, results in community benefits. The money these workers make "contributes to the local economies..." (PS, pg. 44) in their Central American towns (where much of the money is sent). The certifiers have distorted the intent of FSC guidelines to support local economies if they use Mexico as "local" for the Allagash region of Maine.

The SCS certifiers gave Irving a "92" for contractor/employee relations despite their statement that "we have noted the frequent expression of discontent" (PS, pg. 45). The SCS document suggested that "there's always another side to the story" (PS, pg. 43). This statement hardly justifies the SCS rating, given problems already noted, and given that we are not told a convincing other side.

The document does try to take blame off of Irving and instead put it on "market pressures" (PS, pg. 45). That too is an insufficient justification for the 92 rating, given the nature of logger labor markets in northern Maine.

Lloyd Irland, who wrote the socio-economic section, was also a part author of a Department of Labor study on bonded Canadian woods labor. That study, done at the same time as certification, concluded that the labor market in the north woods is not a free market, but an oligopsony. The landowners dominate the market and can set the terms, take-it-or-leave-it. Over the last few decades, inflation-adjusted wages for loggers have gone down by 32% while stumpage profits for landowners have gone up by 169%. The wages are low because the landowners don't want to pay any more than they have to. So they have squeezed the contractors who have squeezed workers.

Irving is getting rid of large contractors and is instead hiring smaller "independent" contractors. These workers are not considered "employees" and are not subject to OSHA protection, worker's compensation, health plans, or withholding for FICA or Medicare. The DOL study said that "from the standpoint of U.S. Labor law, these workers do not exist." (PAC, pg. 64)

Irving is not forced by the market to treat workers this way. This is the company's choice.

Conclusions. The certification of Irving undermines forestry activists concerned with overcutting, clearcuts, or herbicides by legitimizing those practices. It also undermines labor struggling for better wages or working conditions because it gives high grades to the status quo.

Although, the governor, editorial writers, and some environmental groups in Maine have claimed that certification is an alternative to regulation, this is not the case. Regulation is a way to prevent worst abuses. Those who do the worst highgrading and liquidation do so because it is profitable and legal. They are interested in short-term returns, and can make more money this way than managing for certified markets.

Certification, theoretically, is an incentive for best forestry, not a deterrent for worst. With the certification of Irving, the role of certification as a high bar, seems to have been neglected. Perhaps forestry in Maine has been down so long it is starting to look like it is up to SCS certifiers.

The certification of Irving will send confusing signals to the market. To the extent that members of the public see Allagash forests that look very unnatural or hear of woods workers and truckers protesting Irving's labor policies, they will wonder what certification represents.

While it is commendable that JDI has some practices that are better than the typical industrial operations in the area, or that it has intentions for improving its practices, these are not sufficient standards for certification. The standards should be based on desirable outcomes, not comparisons with undesirable outcomes. Some outcomes, (such as landscape structure) take many decades to achieve, but should be a clear target in management plans. Other outcomes, such as minimizing residual logging damage, minimizing size and distribution of roads, yards and trails, or managing without biocides (except for emergencies) should only be certified when they are actual practices, not promises. This applies to labor relations as well.

The rush to certify large areas as soon as possible may backfire for FSC. Controversies over JDI's certifications in Maine and New Brunswick are hurting the credibility of forest certification.

In New Brunswick, SCS certified Irving's Black Brook holdings without trying to ensure that Irving met the regional standards that were being developed by the Maritimes Committee. When these standards passed, Irving, which had a representative on that committee, appealed those standards and waged a public-relations campaign to discredit the committee. When FSC upheld the standards, Irving withdrew its Black Brook certification (until it can get the committee to be restructured and back down from the unwanted standards). In the meantime, Sierra Club Canada's appeal of the certification was rejected by FSC on a technicality related to the time of filing.

With such controversies swirling around, the Maine Low-Impact Forestry Project, which was preparing to have thousands of acres of woodlots certified in the Hancock County area, has withdrawn from such efforts until FSC takes actions to make forestry certification more transparent.

Simon Counsell, in his critique of FSC world wide, raised a key question regarding the goal of certification: "Is its object to try and reward the highest quality forest management, or should it reward those that are not necessarily the highest quality, but are trying to improve." (Counsell, pg. 8).

After reviewing controversial certifications world wide, Counsell concluded: "the actual label on the products resulting from such certification does not necessarily indicate to the consumer the actual high quality of the forest management, but rather the intended quality of the management." And he added, "...there has sometimes been a very large gap between the intention and the reality..." (Counsell, pg. 68).



(Austin) " Lean and mean: Irving says global pressures tighten pay rates," Phyllis Austin, Maine Times, May 30, 2000.

(Counsell) Trickery or Truth? An Examination of the Effectiveness of the Forest Stewardship Council, Simon Counsell, the Rainforest Foundation, UK, June, 1999.

(PAC) Maine Logging Industry and the Bonded Labor Program: An Economic Analysis, Pan Atlantic Consultants/The Irland Group, Maine Department of Labor, November, 1999.

(PS) Public Summary of the Certification Report, Michael Thompson, Woodlot Alternatives, Inc. SCS Northeast, Topsham, Maine, May 2000.

(Vasbinder) Wendy Vasbinder, Certification Program Co-Manager Silva Forest Foundation, personsl communication, 7/4/00