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Why Do Small, Rural Family Landowners Matter to the Global Supply Chain?

Image credit: Paul Summers

Approximately 21 million Americans own woodlands in the United States. Collectively, these family-owned forests account for nearly 290 million acres, or more than one-third of U.S. forests — more than the federal government or the forest industry.

What’s more important for supply chain and sustainability managers, is that 50 percent of the wood flowing into your supply chains originates from these family-owned forests.

Given the importance of our forests and their wood supply, certification has long been the mechanism to ensure and showcase sustainability.

Yet, adoption of certification among family forest owners is low. While strides are being made in reaching new forest landowners each year, nationally fewer than 10 percent of family lands in the U.S. are certified, and only roughly 1 percent of family landowners. In fact, according to the U.S. Forest Service, 82 percent of family landowners are not even familiar with the concept of forest certification.

Even where forest certification is used, it only provides verification that practices are in place for a single parcel of land, owned by one landowner (most landowners on average own 66 acres). It does not offer a comprehensive view of the sustainability of forests as a whole for a region or landscape.

To fully understand the challenge between certification and family-owned forests, it’s important to understand the audience. For the typical family landowner, there are several reasons that forest certification has proven to be a mixed fit. Specifically:

  1. Forest certification does not align with the landowners’ values: Family landowners’ top priorities are wildlife, privacy, family connections to the land, beauty and conservation. As such, forest certification, which is largely geared towards timber production, is not a priority for achieving their goals. More specifically, in the U.S., where private property rights are cherished, voluntarily submitting to additional rules or requirements — often developed by seemingly distant bodies — and then being audited to those rules, is unappealing to many family landowners.
  2. Forest certification is complex: While there are standards and programs, such as the American Tree Farm System, which is administered by the American Forest Foundation (AFF), that have been designed specifically for family landowners in the U.S., forest certification remains complex. Even with support from forestry professionals, for landowners, navigating the requirements and various levels of auditing, requires time and expertise that few have. Even fewer are willing to invest in it, especially when the economic benefits of certification remain inconsistent or, in many areas of the country, non-existent.
  3. Forest certification does not result in price premiums: Most family landowners, unlike coffee growers or food farmers, do not rely on their commodity (timber) as their sole source of income. The vast majority have other jobs or resources outside of timber production. What’s more, supplying wood from certified land rarely results in economic benefits in the form of differentiated markets or price premiums. In fact, very few understand that they are producing a global commodity at all. As such, few landowners consider certification as a competitive advantage or added value.
  4. Forest certification is costly: By virtue of the size and scale of their ownership and their interests, most family landowners are harvesting infrequently and, when they do, the volumes tend to be small. Because of this, it is difficult for landowners to justify the costs of certification, including direct costs of auditing, required investments, time and more.
  5. Forest certification is administratively exhaustive: Certification has many requirements that serve as barriers to engagement. For example, a key requirement of all forest certification systems globally is having a forest management plan in place. Only an estimated 8 percent of family landowners in the U.S. have a management plan. What’s more, research suggests that even those that do have them very seldom use them as a reference, or even value them. Given that a landowner generally must pay to have a plan written, this is a major barrier to family engagement in certification of any kind.

Knowing and understanding these hurdles is important; what’s more is helping overcome them. The AFF is committed to the sustainability of family-owned lands by innovating to make certification easier and more appealing for family landowners.

For example, in just the past year, AFF has developed a pilot Landscape Management Plan that is being tested in the panhandle of Florida. This plan helps remove the cost barrier to forest certification, and the aggravation of developing an individualized management plan. 

This is just one of the many strategies AFF is deploying, to work with forest product companies, manufacturers and brands to improve certification, and thus ensure supply chain sustainability.

To learn more about AFF, and its work around family forest owners and certification, visit

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