A Conversation with Kathy Abusow

We sat down with Kathy Abusow, President and CEO at Sustainable Forestry Initiative, to learn about her passion for forests, what everyday people can do to make our forests more sustainable, diversity in the sector, and much more.

Photo: Kathy Abusow, President and CEO, Sustainable Forestry InitiativeAs you have been the President & CEO at Sustainable Forestry Initiative for 11 years, what would you say drives your passion for forests?

My passion stems from the fact that forests sustain us; they improve our quality of life, purify the air we breathe, and provide us with clean water, sustain biodiversity and communities.  Two-thirds of the water we drink in Canada and ½ of the water in United State comes from our forests. Forests are the homes for common and rare species, and they provide us with products from a renewable resource. Ultimately, they unite us and are truly nature’s gift.

From your 2018 Progress Report, we learned that only about 10% of the world's forests are certified. How would you describe SFI's role in setting standards and the importance of certification?

SFI is a leader dedicated to the future of our forests. We develop tools that support sustainable forest management, and these standards provide assurances for brandowners or consumers who are interested in sourcing products responsibly from a renewable resource. From the 10 percent of certified forests worldwide, over 30 percent of global roundwood production is derived and a lot of the remainder is subject to chain of custody certification and/or SFI's Fiber Sourcing Standard, which does not only address risks in the supply chain, but promotes responsible sourcing of all products going into a SFI Program Participant's facility. The chain of custody standard also tracks the wood fiber in the product being sold, so the next person in the supply chain knows whether it is certified, responsibly sourced, or recycled.

What would you describe as the driving force behind the Conservation Impact Project launched in 2016?

Our conservation impact project helps people understand that certification is more than checking boxes in a standard and being third party audited.  That it delivers conservation results.  Our conservation impact work sets out to quantify the water purified, the carbon stored and the biodiversity maintained on the SFI footprint of certified forests and responsibly sourced products.   For example, NatureServe is working with us on this project to developing a set of metrics to measure the condition of our ecosystems to consistently evaluate the biodiversity attributes in a forest. Quantifiable metrics of biodiversity add to the value of lands.

Locations of imperiled species and ecosystems show habitat connectivity, and the end result is being able to determine the result of responsible forest management that contributes to biodiversity conservation or recovery. Active forest management is part of the solution. For example, if there is a species at-risk – let’s say an endangered bird, we want to know what are the habitat requirements for this species to recover and how can we implement practices that provide the necessary habitat while producing forest products and sustaining communities.  

With the Conservation Impact Project, we work with private and public land owners, indigenous groups, and academics to identify what habitat is optimal for those species. Thus, the result, active forest management, is important for species recovery. Many people assume that only protected areas can address conservation priorities, and while they serve a very important purpose, we must also recognize that the majority of lands are often working forests and if we can manage them responsibly, we can positively contribute to these conservation objectives, whether it is species maintenance or recovery, carbon storage, or water quality.  Active forest management is adaptive, it’s ever changing, it’s dynamic!”

How are climate change and forests related, and how do forests help mitigate climate change?

Photo: Sustainable Forestry InitiativeOne of the pillars of our conservation impact work is related to carbon sequestration. 20% percent of global greenhouse gases emission are a result of deforestation. Deforestation is a permanent loss of forests, i.e. when a forest is no longer a forest, but rather converted to another use, like a residential development or a strip mall. Forests have the potential to absorb and store 1/10th of global carbon emission in their biomass, soil, products – this is why actively managing forests is so important. We can implement practices that can increase carbon storage and a healthy forest is often less susceptible to catastrophic fire, for example, which emits greenhouse gases.  A healthy managed forest that is sustained as a forest and managed for multiple values and benefits, including forest products, can store carbon, not just in the forest and its soils, but in the actual solid wood that is harvested.  So your deck, or your wood-framed home, or tall wood building are all storing carbon, and more carbon is stored when the forest grows more trees.  It’s a great cycle that could be integral in helping reduce the negative effects of climate change, while supporting the use of renewable products from a resource that sustains biodiversity.

How can everyday people make our forests more sustainable?

By valuing managed forests as part of a global solution. Personal decision making, such as looking for certification labels that ensure you are investing in a product that comes from a sustainable resource. That you’re supporting the work of active forest management and helping to positively contribute to the maintenance or recovery of biodiversity.

Now, let’s talk about the role of women in leadership in the forest sector. What is the importance of more diversity in your sector?

Having diversity captures different perspectives and thoughts no matter what sector you work in, it should be a priority.  The world we live in is made up of women and men, young people and the elderly, people who live in rural areas and urban areas, people of all races and religions.  The better we understand these different contexts and perspectives, the richer our understanding, the more robust our decision-making.  In the forest sector we have an opportunity to embrace the next generation of future forest and conservation leaders, whether they are male or female, Indigenous, African American, or new Canadian.  Today and into the future these are the individuals who will be leading and making decisions so let’s embrace them all so that they are welcome and they understand the power of keeping forests as forests, of managing them responsibly, and sustaining communities through their active management.   

As a mentor and founding member of Nature Canada’s Women for Nature Initiative, what advice would you give a young woman aspiring to a career in the forest sector?

First of all, get out there and engage. Build your network. Always ask questions. My advice is the same whether you’re 22 or 42 years old. Get out of your comfort zone. There’s nothing wrong with being new to a topic. There will be numerous pathways to success and there certainly isn’t one pathway.  Take risks, have fun, work hard, communicate, be respectful of others, own your voice and share your voice for good and you will go far.
I am a big believer that the more experiences you have, the more cultures you experience, the more disciplines you embrace, the more you will get out of life and the more value and inspiration you will add to the lives of others.  Build your network, not to get somewhere, but to learn from others, and that learning and those relationships will sustain you.  In essence, the more experiences you have, the more lives you touch, the greater the impact you can make in the world around you.

Congratulations on your acquisition of Project Learning Tree in July 2017, which inspires youth understanding of the natural environment. In what way has this impacted the involvement of youth in the conservation of sustainably managed forests?

Project Learning Tree (PLT) is an environmental education program that teaches youth how to think not what to think.  Through a significant network of educators and facilitators, a deep curriculum, and many hand on activities that take youth outdoors, PLT is making a difference because it connects youth to nature.   It uses trees and forests as windows onto the world and what a bright future we have when we understand the power of forests and nature and how they sustain us.  With 80% of the population being in urban centers, we are increasingly disconnected from nature and our forest resource.  We believe PLT is a gift to society, because it inspires educators and youth alike to learn and care for our natural environment and understand the value of our forests, including actively and responsibly managed forests.

What do you attribute most to the success of SFI?  

SFI is successful because we are mission driven, we have a diverse network that believes that responsibly and actively managed forests can address local and global challenges.  We are successful because we are sincere in our objective to elevate the conservation value of well-managed forests and improve quality of life through these forests.  Our dedication to research, our collaborative spirit and our commitment to continual improvement is garnering attention.  We are successful because organizations like NatureServe are collaborating with SFI to make a difference in our understanding and practices.

Where do you see SFI 10-20 years from now?

You’ll have to ask me a year from now! (laughs) We are strategizing on a new strategic plan that will be ready in the fall of 2019. Currently, we are reaching out to the conservation community, program participants, educational networks, indigenous representatives and customers to help us shape our new strategic direction. I am certain it will come down to how we can most effectively ensure that forests, responsible forest management and the products derived from them continue to be in the front seat of driving change, innovation, and providing solutions to ensure a sustainable future. We will get there – from listening and then taking action.  Essentially, I see a future where everyone gets that well managed forests and the products derived from them improve our quality of life and SFI will essentially do what it takes to get to that future.

Are there any upcoming SFI events that you would like our audience to know of?

There is truly no place like our annual conference to get a sense of our diversity of thought and programming related to supply chain assurances, conservation impact and education and community engagement.  This year, our 2018 SFI Annual Conference is taking place in Westminster, Colorado from October 16-18. This year’s theme is: “Forests are the answer.” To what? Regional, local, and global issues. It will be a great place to learn more about SFI, the Power of our Network, and what role we play in securing a sustainable future for our forests.  Don’t miss it!