Burning the forest for flawed energy in Nova Scotia's forest policy

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Like you, I'm trying to figure out what we've got after the big forest conflagration as pulp mills go down at enormous public cost, ending with the province buying the Bowater lands in western Nova Scotia for some $118 million. Is it new hope or something else?

But before I get to that, let me fume a bit about the forest policy of the last 50 years by evoking a couple of low points that still niggle at me.

I was a young reporter at a tense forest industry conference in Truro in 1973 when I first cottoned on properly to the issue. I had been told to seek out Murray Prest, who had a sawmill in Mooseland, some 60 kilometres east of Halifax. Prest was spitting nails and was basically too angry, or scared, or confused, to talk. Like many other sawmill owners, he was being denied wood that was leased to the new pulp mills, which were dominating the conference. When I later saw his mill, I realized the cause of his dyspepsia: beautiful tall timber right up to a few hundred yards behind his operation -- all leased to the Scott Paper mill in Pictou.

I've wondered ever since: Where would we be today if we had let these small entrepreneurs evolve naturally without having big pulp mills, with their low-value product, choke them off? Any worse than having to cough up hundreds of millions of public dollars now to retrieve a mostly ruined landscape and its broomstick forest? True, we've had a couple of generations of good pulp industry jobs. But at what cost?

This issue -- the local entrepreneur impeded by the favoured outside multinational -- is still very much with us, most recently with the IBM contract in which the province outsourced its computer information system. And, like Murray Prest, we don't know how to talk about it.

As for the clearcutting, let me retrieve this evocative image. Some 15 years ago, the Liscombe game sanctuary on the Eastern Shore had been allowed by government to be clearcut to ruination. A photo in the newspapers showed an endless expanse of sticks and mud with, in the foreground, the old gate with the old sign standing in grim absurdity: "Game Sanctuary. No Hunting.'"

Are we finally through with all that? The Bowater purchase has, in fact, unleashed some relief and optimism. At least control is back home on those lands. The Ecology Action Centre is happy with the prospect of "wilderness conservation, sustainable forest management and community-based forestry" -- good political news for Premier Darrell Dexter insofar as disaffected environmentalists are softening up, and that he can proclaim some good news.

The creation of a centre for "cleaner energy, bioenergy and forest innovation" at the Bowater mill site outside Liverpool, however, is less cheering. Bioenergy, for the most part, is fool's gold. Using byproduct wood or crops is one thing. But if you have to harvest, grow, transport, etc., fibre to turn it into ethanol, biodiesel or whatever, you're basically using a barrel of fossil energy to get a barrel of phoney "clean" energy out. Further, big wood-burning generators to feed the power grid qualify as "green energy" as far as federal regulations are concerned, but in reality it's as dirty as coal. Biomass is good to heat or power homes, businesses or whatnot directly. The rest is questionable.

The government gushes that "the U.S. will need 22 billion gallons of biofuel within 10 years." In fact, the U.S. will need a way to not use 22 billion gallons through conservation and efficiency. To propose trying to plug into that market by liquidating the Nova Scotia forest sounds like the start of another dreary cycle of destruction which, like pulp making, would be as much about subsidy harvesting as anything else.

Let's try to concentrate on the "forest innovation" part, then, shall we? Here's an idea. Halifax Regional Municipality, like many other cities in Canada and the world, is thinking of a "wood first" policy for municipal construction. Robert Niven, founder of CarbonCure, a green-oriented concrete company, took this to task in and opinion piece on Tuesday, saying politicians shouldn't be telling engineers what's best. I agree. But many leading-edge construction engineers would agree with the city.

Specially engineered cross-laminated timber is replacing concrete and steel in buildings up to 10 storeys high in places like London, Melbourne and Vienna, with plans for much higher. Wood is deemed lighter, cheaper, greener and easier to build with than steel or concrete. The Europeans, notably the Austrians, have been checking this out for 30 years, finding it, unlike standard wood-frame building, no more of a fire hazard than anything else. Concrete won't disappear, but it's a target: Making it accounts for five per cent of the world's carbon emissions.

Just saying: Let's really keep our eyes open and not start out afresh assuming that burning the forest for flawed energy is a great idea.

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County. This article was first published in the Chronicle Herald.

Photo: Kris Griffon/Flickr

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