Give Lands and Forestry Minister Iain Rankin credit for trying.
Last November, Rainkin accepted all 45 recommendations from Bill Lahey, a former deputy environment minister and university president hired to figure out how to make Nova Scotia forests healthier and more productive. Lahey’s recommendations were aimed at improving biodiversity and reducing the amount of clearcutting on Crown lands. Depending on whether you subscribe to federal or provincial definitions of clearcuts, the percentage on the total of forested land ranges between 80 and 88 percent.
Lahey predicted a 10-15 percent drop in the wood supply if the government implemented the changes he recommended. He said it was “worth it” and suggested without a better focus on sustainability, the jobs associated with logging and pulp and paper would dwindle.
Yesterday, Rankin called a meeting to update forestry companies, sawmill operators, woodlot owners, and environmental groups on the work underway to implement those recommendations and to seek their feedback.
In March, the Department of Lands and Forestry issued “interim” regulations that forestry contractors must follow when conducting harvests. They are to leave between 10 – 30 percent of trees instead of a few clumps for wildlife and a buffer zone near waterways. It’s working, Rankin told the audience.
“Real improvements are happening on Crown land harvest sites with the implementation of the interim retention guide,” Rainkin said. “We are increasing retention and I encourage you to see this for yourself by signing up for a field visit.”
Rankin offered a similar response when challenged by reporters to prove Crown land is not being clearcut at a faster pace to try and get ahead of final regulations the province has promised (and has yet to make public a draft) by the end of 2019.
“We will soon have a updated Forest Management Guide to address the recommendations of the report; it will describe the harvest methods, including the irregular shelterwood,” said Rankin. “We will consult on this new guide this summer, and it will be finalized by the end of this year. We will continue to consult on the proposed Biodiversity Act this summer and identify priorities for regulations.”
Rankin says Lands and Forestry received funding in this year’s budget to hire two biologists to work on its biodiversity teams. The department has hired four scientists on short-term contracts to help overhaul the Forest Management Guide, to identify “high production” sites in the province suitable for growing trees that will yield enough wood to maintain pulp and paper operations, and to review the science and methodology related to fires and natural disturbances the department has relied on to determine how often certain species of trees can be harvested. That peer review process is underway but won’t be complete until sometime in 2020.
The pace to implement the many recommendations in the Lahey report was described this way by Andy Kekacs, executive director for the Nova Scotia Woodlot Owners & Operators Association: “From a government perspective, it is probably reasonable because these are sweeping changes. From our perspective as small landowners, it seems pretty slow.”
Although the Lahey report did not recommend imposing regulations on private woodlot owners who own about 55% of the treed land in the province, some private landowners such as Bill Oprel suggested it “makes more sense to work together.” Oprel owns about 350 acres near Glencoe Mills, Cape Breton. He says for the past seven years he’s been using an ecological forestry model to manage his lot but the northern boundary has been damaged from blowback caused by (allowable) clearcutting on Crown land leased to Port Hawkesbury Paper. Oprel says while he’s satisfied with how discussions with the mill are going, he thinks the province should be enlisting private woodlot owners in the transition to a more sustainable forest.
Amid a sea of incremental updates, a few eyebrows shot up when Rankin stated the province will soon issue tenders for the use of biomass to heat half a dozen government buildings. The use of sawmill wastes such as bark and chips to provide a local source of heat was one of the recommendations in the Lahey report. Rankin was asked if this initiative was part of a government “Plan B” to provide a market for sawmill operators who sell wood chips and sawdust to Northern Pulp. That market for biomass could disappear if Northern Pulp closes after January 2020 because it can’t operate its effluent treatment facility.
“I think if you look at the amount of chips that Northern Pulp takes, you wouldn’t have enough public buildings to come close to that,” replied Rankin. “This is about giving rural woodlot owners a market for lower value wood that wouldn’t make it to the sawmill. We are following a model in PEI that provided 90-95 percent efficiency heating government buildings.”
Rainkin says there are 100 locations in this province where small-scale biomass could eventually be considered.
“Creating small district heating plants, although not a bad idea in and of themselves — provided you are only using sawmill residuals or silviculture thinnings — may be worth considering,” said Ray Plourde with the Ecology Action Centre. “But not as long as the big, wasteful biomass electricity generators that Nova Scotia Power and Emera are running continue in this province. Their efficiency rates are only about 20% and we are adding carbon to the atmosphere which is not being counted in greenhouse gas emissions. Our position is if the government wants to do small district heating for schools and municipal buildings, the first step must be to close the large, inefficient biomass generators.”
In his opening remarks to the audience, Rankin acknowledged his department must do more to improve communication with both its stakeholders and the public. He said:
I have received feedback from many of you on how we can improve the department’s culture. I welcome this feedback. You told us we need to be more proactive and consistent when we’re sharing information. You said there should be more opportunities to be consulted on how Crown land is managed, and you want to see more transparency around decision-making.
Inside and outside the department, the feeling is the same: We can do better.
I hear you and I agree. We will improve our consultation and information sharing practices and develop a long-term approach for stakeholder and public engagement.
Now if that should that happen, it might be the biggest change of all.