High noon on forest policy: Is change imminent?

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It's nearly high noon over the treetops in Nova Scotia, and the heat is rising. The NDP government is putting the final touches on a new forest strategy, part of a larger natural resources policy review kicked off by the former Tory government and due this year by law. It's the result of decades of public protest over clearcutting, forest spraying and other troubling aspects of industrial forestry.

The question is what to do about a pulp company-driven industry that has left Nova Scotia with one of the worst outcomes in Canada in terms of both economics and forest ecology.

The industry is kicking back with a campaign among its suppliers, woodlot owners and anyone with a connection to put pressure on government to back off. It says it's just providing information. Opponents call it fear-mongering. Its claim is that militant ecologists are finally getting to government and will impose a "command-and-control" system that will stifle and even destroy the industry.

I'm somewhat connected to forestry myself, having a couple of small inherited woodlots here in Yarmouth County, and here's what I heard. Someone told me this week that "they" are about to impose rules that will "prevent you from cutting a stick of wood on your own land."

On that basis, you might say that the "information" campaign is working. On the other hand, I've been hearing stuff like this for years, every time a regulation was imposed -- waterway buffers or wildlife clumps, for example. My conclusion is that the industry's arguments have pretty well run out in the public's mind, and that this campaign is one of desperation.

The expert panel of the Phase II part of the process, recently released after extensive public hearings a couple of years ago, couldn't agree. The main report calls for ecologically sustainable forestry and the regulations to make it happen -- including clearcutting and spraying by permit only under an organized management regime. It says that the history of "self-regulation" has been a flop. It wants an end to the perverse subsidies that encourage clearcutting and spraying, regeneration of our devastated forest and more "green" jobs.

The industry representative, Jon Porter of Bowater-Mersey, put out a dissenting report. It calls for gradual change through the use of "best management practices" and improved compliance with existing regulations and sustainable forestry codes. It sounds very reasonable, except that this has been the industry argument for some 20 years. During that time, although some practices have improved, this has happened:

• Clearcutting has continued to increase and the destructive practice of whole-tree harvesting, leaving nothing on the ground to feed the next growth, was introduced.

• Jobs have continued to decline. According to the Ecology Action Centre's figures, from 2000 to 2007, jobs in wood products manufacturing fell from 4,000 to 2,250 while paper manufacturing jobs fell from 3,000 to 1,700.

• New operators like Wagner International, an American property buy-and-sell company, are buying land, clearcutting it then peddling off the lakes as cottage property.

• Selling wood chips and pellets for biomass on the international market has increased, while we argue about the propriety of using biomass here.

Clearly there's a call to action that can't be ignored. Is the NDP up to it? The politics are interesting. Shortly after the NDP came to power, it endorsed the controversial wood-to-electricity project at Port Hawkebury and made a loan of $75 million to notorious clearcutter Northern Pulp to buy land to feed its Pictou mill (insider scuttlebutt has it that the NDP was forced to take the lesser evil - other buyers were prepared to scoop up the land, likely to make chips and pellets for export).

However, ecologists and NDP activists alike took this as a signal that Natural Resources Minister John MacDonell and the party had been sucked immediately into the old forestry establishment. Apparently the establishment did too.

But a few weeks ago, MacDonell rattled the establishment by declaring that the status quo is not an option and there would be change. He repeated it again this week. Meanwhile, between 2001 and last year, while he was in opposition, MacDonell introduced no less than six bills calling for restrictions on clearcutting along the same lines as what's now being proposed. Looks like he hasn't changed his mind after all.

In the odd world of politics, this puts him in a fairly comfortable place. Having been attacked by the left, the right will have difficulty now painting him as a command-and-control socialist, assuming he really is about to ring in the change the public has been clamouring for.


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