A 60-megawatt forest-burning power plant at the NewPage pulp mill at Port Hawkesbury, recently given the go-ahead by Premier Darrell Dexter, has raised the ire of environmentalists, notably those within the NDP itself, and put new fuel on the fire.

But what’s the view in the woods? Kingsley Brown of the Nova Scotia Landowners and Forest Fibre Producers Association — a group that has had a contract with with NewPage and its predecessor for some 30 years, which Brown calls unique in the world and which gives woodlot owners a higher return than others in the province — makes the argument for the plant.

NewPage is certified by the U.S.-based Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which is “the greenest and most rigorous certification standard in the world,” says Brown. Under the contract, NewPage pays an additional $3.75 a cord from private FSC-certified lands that goes into a fund to finance the system.

NewPage projects using wood from 300 private owners for its power-and-papermaking operation. Brown’s group is trying to have these FSC-certified too — it has 100 now — and says his group’s assurances that all 300 would be certified, and that the forest will sustain the power plant, is what got Premier Dexter onside.

Nova Scotia wood chips are going to Europe now, says Brown, and some of them are used to make electricity there. Plus there’s a die-off of white spruce because of a bark beetle, and those alone in eastern Nova Scotia would go a long way towards feeding NewPage’s needs.

The contrary view is that FSC certification or not, it’s still mostly clearcutting, and more of it. Along with most environmentalists, the rival Nova Scotia Woodlot Owners and Operators Association represents the deeper ecology point of view, and promotes restoration of the Acadian forest with as little clearcutting as possible.

Speaking for the group, Wade Prest, professional forester and woodlot operator from Mooseland, says the problem is that we’re over-harvesting now and taking smaller and smaller trees — with the pulp mills taking saplings as small as one-and-a-half inches in diameter. He refers to the work of GPI Atlantic which, in reports in 2001 and 2008, showed the extent of the degradation: Only a fraction of the trees still standing are “old growth.” The rest are only a few decades old and are being harvested prematurely. Meanwhile, GPI showed, Nova Scotia gets pretty well the lowest value per cubic metre of wood among provinces.

“There’s less and less in the woods even before talking of biomass energy,” says Prest, “and we’re probably long past the point where we’re taking too much.” The assumption that “you can re-grow in perpetuity,” he says, is just that — an assumption. Although the forest industry claims otherwise, he says, there is no science that justifies “clearcutting on a short rotation.”

Although it makes economic sense in the short term to cut, say, useless and dying white spruce to make electricity, he says, biomass power still represents lowering even further the value of Nova Scotia’s standing forest.

What’s interesting here is that Brown and Prest represent variations of the forward argument on the future of forestry. In that sense, the debate surrounding NewPage is an advance over what we’ve known. What we’ve known, alas, is the third point of view — that of the various operators in the rest of the province where slash-and-trash cutting and resistance to progressive forestry have been the norm.

Right now, for example, there’s a public campaign at Caribou Mines, between Mooseland and Upper Musquodoboit, against large “whole tree” clearcuts (leaving no branches and tops for the next crop) by Northern Pulp, which took over the old Scott Paper/Kimberley Clark mill at Pictou. Then there are the many private owners in western Nova Scotia that disgust Brown — mostly resistant to progressive practice and organization, and preferring a quick slash-and-cash at whatever feeble prices they can get.

Yet, even recalcitrants like Northern Pulp and Bowater are getting onto some progressive programs — Northern Pulp is negotiating a sustainable forestry experiment with government and other groups, and Bowater is trying to get FSC certification for a big strip in the Medway area. The NewPage plant is still not a done deal. As it wends its way towards a conclusion, hopefully, at least, the controversy around it will serve to clarify the muddle around both forestry and energy.

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County.

Ralph Surette

Ralph Surette

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County.