By Corey Brinkema

The Legislature recently passed the New Jersey Healthy Forests Act, which provides greater protections for the state's forests. The legislation awaits Gov. Christie's signature.

A number of leading conservation organizations lent their support to this bill only after a requirement was added that state forests earn Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification.

FSC, an independent nonprofit organization that sets rigorous standards for forest management, is led by its members, which include the National Wildlife Federation, the World Wildlife Fund, the Sierra Club, and the Nature Conservancy. More than 175 million acres of forest are managed to FSC standards in the United States and Canada.

Even before Superstorm Sandy, the health of forests in New Jersey was in decline. Existing trees are dying and are not being replaced by new growth. Wildlife habitat is suffering, and, in many cases, there are no management plans to restore forest health.

FSC standards promote natural forest conditions, including the protection of wildlife habitat and environmentally sensitive areas such as streams, wetlands, and riparian areas. FSC-certified forests are independently audited on an annual basis to ensure the standards are being met. If auditors find the standards are being violated, they can withhold certification until the forest manager corrects the situation.

Because the legislation requires FSC certification, the state would be required to manage to FSC standards. If the certification were lost, it would be cause for an enforcement action, like any other violation of the law.

FSC requires protection for rare, threatened, and endangered species, and restricts the use of pesticides and herbicides common in conventional forestry. Worldwide, FSC is considered the highest standard for responsible forest management, which is why it's the only certification system supported by groups such as Greenpeace, the Rainforest Action Network, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In addition to world-leading environmental requirements, FSC is equally rigorous in its requirements for outreach and community engagement. Auditors are required to seek input from surrounding communities, audit reports are shared publicly, and citizens gain new opportunities to provide input and serve as watchdogs over the forests. While the state requires public engagement, FSC adds specificity about who must be involved, and the findings are shared publicly. An impartial third party - the auditor - conducts all the outreach.

FSC also provides real business value. Recently, FSC conducted a survey of certified companies worldwide. About 4,500 companies responded, and 98 percent said they would keep or renew their FSC certification. And green building is big business. Recently, members of the U.S. Green Building Council voted to approve a new green building standard that includes credit for use of FSC-certified products. If state forests are FSC-certified, products from these forests can help supply green building projects around the state and country.

There are up-front costs associated with certification, especially where there are no management plans currently. But these plans would need to be developed in any case as the first step toward restoring New Jersey's forests. Once forests earn certification, the cost to maintain it is pennies per acre. Many other states with similar fiduciary responsibilities have conducted cost-benefit analyses of FSC-certified management and decided to get certified.

There is a historic opportunity in front of Christie, one that won't soon come again. I urge him to sign this bill and start New Jersey forests on the path to restoration and certification.

Corey Brinkema is president of the Forest Stewardship Council U.S. E-mail him at c.brinkema@us.fsc.org.