Highlights from
Grade Inflation? SCS Certification of Irving’s Allagash Timberlands
A Report for Sierra Club in May, 2002

By Mitch Lansky

The following is a summary of the report. Click here for the full report.

In 2000, Scientific Certification Systems (SCS) certified around half a million acres of J.D. Irving’s Allagash Timberlands (in northern Maine) under Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) standards as a "well-managed natural forest." Soon after, the Sierra Club challenged the certification, but both SCS and FSC upheld the certification.

In the Spring of 2002, FSC did an audit of SCS’s certification. In anticipation of this audit, the Sierra Club asked me to write a report to determine what were SCS’s standards for grading J.D. Irving, and to what degree the final scores given by SCS followed both the SCS and FSC guidelines. While the Sierra Club did not give the FSC auditors a copy of my report, Sierra Club representatives and I did meet with the FSC auditors and did raise many of the issues from the report, often in the form of questions. The auditors, however, upheld the certification, though they did admit there had been some grade inflation, and they did recommend corrective actions for Irving to follow.

On November 6th of 2002, Martin von Mirbach, a representative of Sierra Club from Canada, expressed deep disappointment in the FSC auditors’ report, which, Martin claimed, failed to deal with many of the issues that we had raised at our meeting. (See letter von Mirbach sent to FSC) He stated that Sierra Club would drop its appeal, not because the appeal lacked merit, but, rather, "based on the report prepared in June we lack confidence that the FSC appeals process will be rigorous enough." .

The following are some of the highlights of the 40-page report that I wrote for the Sierra Club:

Grade Inflators

SCS awarded some high grades to Irving ( grades in the 90s for harvest regulation, pest control strategy, forest access, harvest efficiency, management plan, fish and wildlife, watercourse management, pesticide use, financial stability, public involvement, public use, investment in capital and personnel, and employee and contractor relations, most other scores were in the 80s). How did SCS come up with such high grades, especially when so many of Irving’s practices were controversial (such as their dependency on herbicide use or their relations with logging contractors)? I identified a number of grade-inflation themes, which I summarize here:

A. Giving high grades based on promises, rather than practices (cut will equal growth--in the future).

B. Giving high grades based on process or policy, rather than practices on the ground (great computer program to project growth, even if the cutting is mediocre).

C. Setting such low non-certification thresholds that it is difficult not to pass, even when practices veer far from the ideal performance (one would have to have no management plan, or cause species to go extinct to go below 80, the non-certification threshold, in some instances).

D. Ignoring or discounting negative information (wages may be low, jobs may be lost, some of the contractors may complain, but "we are inclined to lay more emphasis on the investment and employment creation we have seen, than on the negative points and complaints uncovered.").

E. Using the few percent fix, where an unacceptable practice becomes "acceptable" through token mitigation that does not change the basic thrust (clearcut with retention, or spraying herbicides on only 95% of plantations, rather than 100%, for example).

F. Marking on the curve--i.e., comparing Irving to some other landowners that are doing worse management, rather than comparing practices to the ideal performance.


1. The Forest Stewardship Council is not supposed to certify the replacement of natural forests with plantations if they were established after 1994. Since 1994, however, J.D. Irving has clearcut many thousands of acres in the Allagash Timberlands, crushed the regeneration and slash, planted mostly white and black spruce (which are boreal species, species more naturally abundant much farther to the north) and sometimes Norway spruce (which is an exotic) and sprayed these stands with herbicides. Scientific Certification Systems and FSC contend that these are "planted forests" rather than plantations. While Irving has recently started leaving scattered trees (dead and live) and small islands of trees (for each 25 acres of clearcut) these are recommended practices for improving plantations. Calling these plantations a "natural forest" fails the straight-face test.

Bob Seymour, one of the SCS certifiers, has written (along with Alan White and Philip deMaynadier) elsewhere that, "boreal species [...] Rarely form extensive monocultures in the northeast, except after rare large-scale, stand-replacing disturbances to which they are well adapted." Also, from the same document, Seymour et al. wrote that short rotations (less than 100 years) are very unnatural and that "leaving a few scattered reserve trees [...] could offer only limited benefits." "Management that deliberately produces such stands thus cannot claim to be emulating natural disturbances..." Yet, Irving was certified as a "well-managed natural forest.."

2. J.D. Irving was cutting more than growth for its softwoods at the time of certification. SCS accepted the heavy current cutting of softwoods based on computer projections of future growth as a result of planting, thinning, and herbicides--thus rewarding the very practices that much of the public does not expect from certified forests. This strategy (called ACE, or the accelerated cut effect) is questionable for a forest certified as "natural." Despite a landscape that already is too weighted towards young stands, J.D. Irving’s heavy cutting strategy will lead to even less acreage of mature softwoods in 25 years than there are now. Irving got a 90 for harvest regulation.

3. Irving’s clearcutting rate on its Allagash Timberlands, as a percentage of land base, is among the highest for large landowners in the state. Maine’s Bureau of Parks and Lands, on similar forest types, does very little clearcutting, thus indicating that Irving’s rate of clearcutting is not a necessity.

4. Irving is one of the biggest herbicide users in the state. Choice of management regimes that heighten dependency on pesticides is supposed to be a non-certification threshold. Yet Irving’s choice of plantation-style forestry creates a clear dependency on herbicides. Irving sprays 95% of its plantations. Irving’s 25 year plan calls for continued herbicide dependence. SCS claims that Irving’s policy calls for spraying only when absolutely necessary. In contrast, the Bureau of Parks and Lands uses insignificant amounts of herbicides in similar forest types in the state, thus showing that Irving’s rate of spraying is not necessary. Irving got a 90 for pesticide use.

5. Most certified ownerships hire 2 to 4 times more foresters per land area as Irving. Irving foresters do not mark trees for partial cuts, even though SCS recommended that at least 40% to 60% of partial cuts should be marked "to do consistently high-quality work."

The choice of which trees to cut is left to loggers, who have to determine the crown conditions, stem quality, basal area, and other criteria from inside the cab of mechanical harvesters. These loggers are not paid extra for being forest technicians.

6. Between 65% and 70% (depending on which page of the certification summary document you are reading) of cutting is done with feller bunchers and grapple skidders, removing whole trees. The contractor guidelines, if followed, would lead to around 1/4th of the forest being taken up in just trails for machines, let alone area needed for yards for whole trees.

The team that certified Public Lands (the company, SCS, was the same and most of the certifiers were the same) stated that, "...the push to skid large hitches of whole-tree stems with wide, powerful grapple skidders can all-too-easily result in excessive area in trails, soil damage (rutting), damage to residual trees, excessive area in roadside yards, and unsightly accumulations of residues at roadside. Hauling slash back into the woods after roadside delimbing, a common practice to avoid the latter problems, can actually magnify the former, as it merely increases the amount of traffic of loaded grapple skidders and rarely accomplishes a uniform distribution of residues." Some certification systems don’t allow whole-tree logging. Irving got a 90 for harvest efficiency.

7. SCS praised Irving’s riparian zone management guidelines, which, it claimed, went way beyond state standards by requiring 200 foot buffers around streams. While the Maine Council on Sustainable Management, which Bob Seymour was on, recommended that streams have buffer zones of 75 feet of forest with 65%-70% of full crown closure, and 250 feet with no clearcuts, Irving allows overstory removals (where all mature trees can be cut if there is advanced regeneration) to within 15 feet of streamside. For this, Irving got a grade of 95 for watercourse management policies.

8. Large certified landownerships are supposed to have ecological reserves--especially if these are limited in abundance in the landscape (which is the case in northern Maine). Irving has a small percentage of its land in "unique areas," but Irving cuts in much of these areas. Indeed, although only around 2% of Irving’s Allagash Timberlands are in "unique areas," this is where Irving plans to get 3% of its spruce-fir volume. The more intensive the management, the more the need for truly protected areas to maintain habitats that might get lost where rotations are short and herbicides and thinning are used. Irving got an 88 for ecological reserve policy.

9. Allagash is one of the few towns in the state where you have to pay a fee to get from one side of the town to the next. The reason for these fees is that most of the roads are private, owned by J.D. Irving, and gated. Many people in the town of Allagash are irked by the location of the gatehouses. There are some houses beyond the checkpoints. Some townspeople, last spring, burned down two gate houses to Irving land. Ironically, SCS gave Irving a 95 for public use management.

10. Many of Irving’s contractors have complained about one-sided contracts, pressure to run equipment on two shifts (day and night), increased responsibilities to perform for a certified landowner, but lowered payments that put the contractors in a squeeze.

At the time of certification, truckers blockaded the border with Canada because, they claimed, that Irving’s payment policies pressured them to drive overloaded trucks. Some loggers, in an unrelated blockade of Canada, protested the export of raw sawlogs and importation of bonded Canadian loggers. As a result of the logger blockade, the Department of Labor did a $100,000 study on the bonded logger issue.

One of the authors of this study, Lloyd Irland, was also a certifier of Irving for SCS at the same time. The study concluded that big landowners were using their economic power (in an area with few alternatives for employment) to lower their costs for labor below levels that would occur in a free market. The study concluded that for the whole state, over the last several decades, logger productivity went up 74%, landowner profits went up 169%, but logger wages (inflation adjusted) went down 32%. It also concluded that small independent contractors and subcontractors are a class of workers who are not subject to protections such as Workers Compensation, OSHA, FICA, or Unionization. "...from the standpoint of US labor law," this study stated, "these workers do not exist." Irving has moved to smaller contractors who have big investments in equipment and are at the mercy of Irving who can fire them for any reason, any time.

Irving uses Central American guestworkers to do its planting and thinning. These workers come from some of the poorest countries in the hemisphere and have to pay large fees for visas and entrance to the US. They also have to pay for transportation and housing, and so end up with big debts. Bruce Kyle, Bangor Daily News editorial writer, called these workers "indentured servants."

A September Bangor Daily News article by Susan Young about the guestworker program gave evidence that since Central Americans have started working in the Maine woods, wages for thinning and planting have gone down. She quoted Chuck Gadzik, Irving forester, who stated: "The rate we’d have to pay to get people to do the work at 3 percent unemployment [in Maine] would not be economically feasible," indicating an unwillingness to allow wages determined by a free market. Irving got a 92 for employee and contractor relations.