AHEC Supports World Forest ID (WFID) Attempts to Scientifically GEO Reference Global Timber Supply

Oct/Nov Issue

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Michael Snow
Michael Snow

The World Forest ID (WFID) has set itself an ambitious target – to establish a geo-referenced global wood sample library and database to allow use of science-based traceability techniques to police trade in the world’s top 200 commercial and most vulnerable timber species. In the latest development, WFID is partnering with the American Hardwood Export Council (AHEC) and others with the ultimate goal of creating a sample collection and timber identification and traceability database covering the entire U.S. Hardwood forest. This could become a model for equivalent national projects globally. According to WFID chief executive Phil Guillery, such a resource would deliver a significant blow against illegal logging and for maintenance of the global forest resource, its biodiversity and critical role in climate regulation. 

“The main obstacle was that, while there were major wood sample collections around the world, the samples weren’t geo-referenced. As a result, they could not be used with science-based analysis techniques to prove timber origin, which can be key in prosecuting illegal timber traffickers,” said Guillery, who was then supply chain integrity director at the Forest Stewardship Council sustainability certification organization (FSC). “However, within this group we decided we had the knowledge and resources to address this.”

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Consequently a consortium came together to form WFID. This comprised the World Resources Institute, the FSC and the U.S. Forest Service International Programs office (USFSIP – WFID’s main funder to date). Also on board are UK experts in stable isotope ratio analysis (SIRA) Agroisolab, and Kew Gardens in London. The latter is the designated curator of the WFID wood sample collection, and has received funding for the work from the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. 

This year saw a further significant step in WFID’s development, when it became a not-for profit entity in its own right, with Guillery as chief executive, backed by dedicated personnel at various consortium partners. 

Collectors include employees of consortium members and local partner organizations, plus individual volunteers. Using a range of equipment, from power tools to a manual piece of kit called a Pickering Punch, they gather samples of sapwood, heartwood, cambium, bark and leaves from a number of trees of a particular species distributed over a specific area. Via GPS, the WFID collectors’ app then registers the location of where the sample comes from to an accuracy of 8-16 meters. 

Most of the analysis is being done at Agroisolab and the USFSIP’s Wood Identification and Screening Centre. Besides SIRA and DART mass spectrometry, methods being used on samples are wood anatomy, DNA analysis and in the case of pulp and paper, fiber analysis.

The end result of WFID’s program is a bank of irrefutable scientific data, effectively the wood samples’ chemical and structural ‘fingerprints’, identifying species and provenance. Held at the University of Connecticut, this database can/will be freely accessed/accessible by ISO-certified public and private testing laboratories for cross referencing with analysis of traded timber to verify it’s what it’s claimed to be and comes from legal/and sustainable sources. 

“What we’ve created is the infrastructure and partnerships necessary to build the only open-source geo-referenced wood and agriculture collection in the world,” said Guillery. “This will enable us to overcome barriers to increasing mainstream use of scientific analysis techniques to rein in the lucrative and destructive trade in illegal forest products.”

Moreover, the WFID sample collection and data can be used to highlight what is ‘good wood as well as bad’. Thus it can be employed by the legitimate timber trade to provide customers cast-iron assurance that its wood is legally and sustainably sourced and its supply chains deforestation-free. Potentially this could bring companies’ or national timber industries’ reputational and bottomline benefits, as well as providing a further weapon in their battle with illegal traders who undercut legal operators and damage the image of the wood sector generally.

This, in fact, is the goal of the new WFID project with the U.S. Hardwood industry. Working with the state university and backed by USFSIP, WFID is initially undertaking sample collection and analysis of U.S. White Oak and Tulipwood in Kentucky. Once this pilot is complete, the objective is to roll out the process across the entire U.S. Hardwood forest to create a national identification and traceability database for the 12 lead American export species. 

This work will help combat illegal traders who try and pass off timber from other sources – and other species – as the most popular American varieties. U.S. White Oak is a particularly popular target for this.

At the same time, the U.S. industry will be able to use the species and traceability data in conjunction with existing tools, studies and analysis demonstrating the legality and sustainability of the U.S. Hardwood resource. These include AHEC’s open access Interactive Forest Map. Based on constantly updated U.S. Forest Inventory Analysis data, this shows Hardwood forest, growth, timber removal, species distribution and more.

“With the data we already have like the Seneca Creek report and LCA study, the WFID’s geo-referenced sampling and wood analysis will give us the tools to link timber production to demonstrably sustainable forest,” said AHEC European Director David Venables. “As its approach is science-based, it’s also not prone to the error, misuse or fraud to which some verification systems are vulnerable.”

The organization’s Executive Director Michael Snow added that with WFID, the U.S. had the potential to create an ‘international template for large-scale, industry-wide use of science-based traceability in the forest sector’.

AHEC and others have requested the U.S. Congress for an appropriation for WFID’s America-wide project and Guillery says it could be completed in as little as two years. He’s also confident WFID’s ambition for a global timber identification and traceability database is achievable.

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