How to reform N.S. forestry? Break up Department of Natural Resources

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support for as little as $5 per month!

Surely this is the last straw in the long-running calamity which is woodlands management in Nova Scotia. As predicted, the Port Hawkesbury biomass generator, making 60 MW of electricity by burning wood, is a disaster -- so much so that two high-end flooring mills in eastern Nova Scotia are shutting down mainly because the good hardwood they need is going into the biomass hopper, the latest version of the long-running arrangement wherein small operators are starved in favour of big ones.

Who's to blame? It would be too easy to blame the NDP government alone. It just did what governments have been doing for 50 years: panicking at the prospect of a pulp mill closing and giving away the store (the biomass plant is essentially a subsidy to the pulp mill to which it's attached, with surplus -- and high-cost, high polluting -- power going to the grid).

More specifically, where did the politicians get the airy-fairy notion that the plant would run on waste wood -- whatever that is -- whereas, as was obvious to anyone who can rub two sticks together, contractors who need to rumble in some 50 to 60 truckloads of wood a day for the boiler (nearly as much as for the pulp mill itself) have no time or incentive to mess around separating good logs from presumed and undefined "waste."

The culprit is the Department of Natural Resources. A DNR official recently said the negative effects of the plant were "unintended consequences" that "couldn't have been predicted." That is, not if your basis for judgment is clearcutting dogma and all those experts, operators and others howling out warnings that this would happen are just so much background noise.

Wearily, let me say this for the umpteenth time. In practice, DNR is not a department of government but of the pulp and lumber industry. It's been that way since the 1960s. DNR ministers arrive knowing nothing and end up as messengers for the established powers.

The nub is that DNR is in a conflict of interest -- it both regulates and promotes the industry. Its wildlife division, supposed to be the protector of the fauna, answers to doctrinaire clearcutters who don't give a hoot for wildlife, or for hardwood companies, for that matter -- DNR has steadfastly refused to give these companies access to wood that the pulp companies didn't even need. High-level lands planning, endangered species, game sanctuaries, logging regulations and policy are on the same tilted ground.

Before anything else can be dealt with, this department must be broken up, its wildlife pieces either farmed out to the Environment Department or split off in some other way. This was proposed by many through the long and ignored Natural Resources Review process.

This is first and foremost an issue of governance, and this is the problem. Governments, knowing little of this complex issue and caught up with other intractable problems and facing the influence of big forestry players, have not yet worked up the nerve to even address it.

With regard to the biomass plant, the plant itself is under the purview of the Energy Department. Last fall, after I wrote a column also making the above points, then-Energy Minister Andrew Younger e-mailed to say the plant was being reviewed to see where cutbacks could be made. But he's gone and no sign of any moves. One group is trying to raise a letters-to-the-premier campaign to shut it down, pointing out, among other things, that it may have to be shut down anyway when Muskrat Falls power arrives in a few years.

Then there's the other hot forest issue -- the dead-of-night Panuke Lake clearcut in an area designated environmentally sensitive. An independent report has been produced that says the cut followed all the rules, but "the rules have to change."

It made several recommendations, including to stop harvesting in designated environmentally sensitive areas, place the western Crown lands under the internationally recognized FSC designation for sustainable forestry, mark out areas for non-clearcut harvesting, extend buffers, clarify departmental procedures and decision-making processes, and more.

DNR has responded by promising action on some, but not all recommendations -- notably postponing harvest in sensitive areas until new management practices are in place, while several advisory committees work on various parts of the subjects.

This stuff always sounds good. But as one insider points out, as long as the reforming is being done by the reformees themselves, we're still in the round-and-round of 20 years of committees, reports and hollow promises while the reckless harvesting goes on.

In other words, reform will continue to be slow, painful and inadequate unless the department itself is reformed first, and is unhitched from the harvest-at-all-costs policy that has prevented a proper homegrown forest industry from establishing itself, of which the defunct hardwood floor mills are prime examples.

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

Photo: John Douglas/flickr

Related Items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable. has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.