In December 2020, Mike Lancaster was invited to attend an online meeting of the Western Region Stakeholder Interaction Committee, which he describes as a venue for those holding forestry licences on Crown land and “other key stakeholders to engage with the Department of Lands and Forestry on forestry and planning issues for the western region of Nova Scotia.”
The province set up the Committee in 2014, after the purchase of Bowater Mersey woodlands. The committee meets twice a year.
Lancaster coordinates the Healthy Forest Coalition, a citizens’ group that formed in 2016, to protest “the rampant clearcutting of Nova Scotia’s forests and increased harvesting of timber for biomass, and that says it aims “to halt these practices and to ensure that our government’s policies would foster restoration of the Acadian forest, protection of special places, and maintenance of biodiversity.”
The invitation to attend the December 2020 meeting was a first for Lancaster, and his status was “observer.”
But, as he tells the Examiner, that doesn’t mean he was able to observe the whole meeting.
Lancaster says he was able to participate in the Committee’s preliminary discussions, speak to other participants about the Healthy Forest Coalition and its interest in the Western region of the province, and see the updates from the Department of Lands and Forestry (DLF) on its progress with the Lahey Report.
Like the other participants — he estimates there were between 30 and 50 people attending the virtual meeting — he also watched the presentation from the Medway Community Forest Cooperative, which outlined its planned forestry harvesting operations on Crown land for the coming year.
Getting the boot
Then, says Lancaster, it was the turn of Marcus Zwicker to present on behalf of the private mills he represents, including a few that play an oversize role in Nova Scotia’s forestry sector, such as Port Hawkesbury Paper, Freeman Lumber, and the Northern Pulp Nova Scotia Corporation, which still owns 420,000 acres of land in Nova Scotia and holds leases on more than 200,000 acres of Crown land.
In May 2021, Zwicker became the chief operating officer for Freeman Lumber, but at the time of the meeting, he was still the general manager of WestFor, the consortium of mills that operates on Crown land in western Nova Scotia.
Lancaster takes up the story:
When it came time for Marcus [Zwicker] to present on behalf of WestFor on their planned operations for the year, the chair of the Committee said, “Okay, Mike, this is when I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
Lancaster says that Zwicker appeared to have veto power over who could see what, and used it to exclude him from the meeting when WestFor was presenting.
The Examiner contacted WestFor for confirmation of this, but has yet to receive a reply.
Lancaster says he protested, and that before he left the online meeting, he reminded participants that the Department of Lands and Forestry had said they were trying to improve their engagement with the public and increase transparency.
He also told them that he was a member of the public who was interested and engaged, who wanted to learn more about the forestry operations and plans on Crown land, but that he was being barred from attending WestFor’s presentation.
“This is the problem,” he recalls saying to them. “So I thank you for having me, but I’m very disappointed that this is the way this is happening.”
Lancaster says that what made his exclusion from that part of the meeting “all the more egregious,” is that:
The committee structure is such that the sitting members, which in this case were composed of a private entity that stands to gain economically [from their management and operations on Crown land], is able to bar members of the interested public from participation. That’s very concerning to me.
But private control of forestry operations on public lands is nothing unusual in Nova Scotia.
And that brings us to the government’s Harvest Plans Viewer Map, which is where the public is supposed to go to get information about forestry operations on Crown land, and where, if citizens submit a comment on the “interactive” map, they are likely to hear back not from public servants in DLF who work for them and whose salaries they pay, but from the private entities to whom it is leased.
But first, a little background on the creation of that Harvest Plans Map and on WestFor.
The Harvest Plan Viewer Map and WestFor are born
In April 2016, the provincial government announced that it had launched a new interactive Harvest Plan Map Viewer (HPMV), which it claimed was “helping to improve public engagement on planned fibre harvests in Nova Scotia woodlands,” and providing “better access for Nova Scotians to view and comment on harvest plans for all Crown lands.”
That was the same year that the WestFor consortium of mills appeared on the scene, and was granted a lease to manage some of the prize Bowater woodlands in western Nova Scotia. Recall that four years earlier, in 2012, with the pulp mill in Queen’s County closing, the NDP government of Darrell Dexter purchased the shares of its owners, Resolute Forest Products and the Washington Post Company, for $1.
The assets didn’t come so cheaply. Nova Scotians put up $117.7 million for 550,000 acres of prime woodland. The province declared that the land purchase would bring “opportunities for forest-sector growth, including community forests.”
The purchase of Bowater lands garnered a good deal of support from the public who believed it would be a good investment for conservation and biodiversity, and as Linda Pannozzo reported here, that they would have a say in how it was managed.
In 2016, the province released a five-year report on the progress of the 2011-2020 natural resources strategy, “The Path We Share,” that the NDP government had developed with a great deal of public consultation, input and enthusiasm. With the Liberals now in power and Lloyd Hines heading the Department of Natural Resources (now Lands and Forestry), the 2016 report dropped many of the key recommendations in that strategy, including the modest pledge to reduce clearcutting from 90% to 50% of harvests on Crown land.
The report also revealed that just three years after the people of Nova Scotia paid to buy the Bowater lands, as part of its “innovative approach to fibre allocations” the Department of Natural Resources had “engaged a group of forest businesses to come together to manage the western Crown lands.” The report continued:
The consortium was incorporated in 2015 as WestFor, which will jointly hold one western Crown harvesting licence. A Forest Utilization License Agreement (FULA) negotiation began with WestFor in July 2015 and is expected to be completed by December 2016.
Which is interesting, because as recently as November 2020, WestFor’s website stated that the consortium “was established in 2016 by the Provincial Government to increase the efficiency of forest management on Crown Land in Nova Scotia. We assist 13 mills in their day to day operations while also assisting the government, the people, and the forests.” (emphasis added)
Since then, WestFor has changed its creation story, and its current website now seems to be trying to put some distance between its origins and the provincial government, stating that:
WestFor was created in 2016 when 13 mills came together to create a partnership to effectively manage crown lands in western Nova Scotia.
Whether coincidence or not, WestFor and the Harvest Plan Map Viewer did appear on the forestry scene around the same time, both claiming an interest in how Crown lands are harvested, which is a benign word applied to all range of logging practices, including clearcutting.
The press release about the launch of the “interactive” harvest plan map stated:
For each harvest plan on the viewer, the public will be provided 20 days for commenting after the harvest site is first posted. If the planned harvest method is changed to clearcut, that map will be updated and an additional ten days for public commenting will be provided.
“Nova Scotians want and expect an open and transparent process when it comes to the management of Crown lands,” said Natural Resources Minister Lloyd Hines. “This map viewer is part of our commitment to enhance public consultation, which will help to provide that transparency. …”
Users are able to send comments or a request for a harvest plan pre-treatment assessment directly to the licensee responsible for harvesting.
Not as “open and transparent” as advertised
Since then, the Harvest Plan Map Viewer (HPMV), which is updated regularly, turned into the Harvest Plans Map Viewer, and it has evolved in at least one — albeit small — way that Lancaster deems positive. Instead of 20 days, the public now has 40 days to make a comment.
But even 40 days, Lancaster says, are not enough for anyone who wants to make a meaningful comment, and not just say, “I don’t like clearcuts, don’t do it,” when they see a new area slated for “variable retention” or “overstory removal,” both of which he argues are just different words for clearcutting. (In 2019, Linda Pannozzo reported in depth about the cutting of the term “clearcut” from the Harvest Plans Viewer Map.)
He says it takes time and energy to make “an informed decision that is based on actual data as to why certain prescriptions are not the best way to manage what’s essentially a public asset.”
Lancaster says he used the map a lot when it first came out, as did many people engaged in forestry issues, because they were “under what became a mistaken impression that the feedback that would be submitted would potentially have an influence.”
“We were operating on good faith that this was going to be an opportunity to change the way that things were done,” says Lancaster.
But he points out that to get the data he needed to make an informed comment, he had to go to the stands that were slated for cutting and conduct his own surveys, looking for any kind of ecological factors that might justify not cutting that site. Lancaster says his time and energy were for mostly for naught:
When you send those emails or those comments, you would just get back a form letter that you could tell was a copy-and-paste to anybody who sent in a comment, and it wouldn’t specifically address any of the concerns that I raised.
So after kind of spending a lot of time engaging in that process, it just became a little bit too frustrating feeling like I wasn’t being listened to. … It takes a lot of work to get an actual coherent argument as to why these things [proposed harvests] could potentially be changed and should be changed, to do the actual ground-truthing, as it’s called, and see what’s actually in the area that is proposed for harvest, and through those systems to come up with an alternative. The presumption is always that these stands that are proposed are going to be harvested, and often areas that they’ve got proposed as a clear cut … would be more appropriate for individual tree selections or irregular shelter woods or just lighter touch forestry.
Lancaster says there have been times when his comments resulted in changes to planned cuts on Crown land, once when he identified old growth on a site, and another time when he identified maple stands and was able to have the harvest downgraded from a clearcut to individual tree selection. He adds:
It’s definitely not the norm, but it’s not to say that they’re totally closed off from these things happening. That is good, but it’s also worrisome that right now, the way that these stands get proposed is dependent upon the data that’s provided by the Crown licensee. The vast, vast majority of these are not actually confirmed in the field by the Department of Lands and Forestry. So it means that the person or the entity that stands to economically gain from what occurs is the one dictating what happens, to a large extent. They’re not making the approval, but they’re saying this is what this forest is, this is what is it is composed of, and therefore this is what the best treatment of it is. And then Lands and Forestry kind of goes through the regulatory process, operating on that data.
In Lancaster’s view, there are many other problems with the interactive forest harvest map.
Lancaster says the data that companies leasing the Crown land collect during the “pre-treatment assessment process” and that justify their decisions on what kind of harvesting they plan to do on a site is not provided on the map. “There should be an option for all members of the public to have access to that data as it relates to that specific site,” according to Lancaster. “You should be able to click on a site proposed for a clearcut and see the data on that forest from their data collection.”
Another problem he sees is the lack of historical data on forestry operations. Lancaster says it is possible to click through layers to find the “archive layer” on the map, but notes, “That only gives you a snapshot of the past five years, when forestry decisions should be made on a scale of a century.”
“It’s not adequate to make informed decisions,” says Lancaster. “It means that people who engage in the process are forced to be incredibly in tune with that area and understand its history, because if you’re just viewing it from the map perspective, you’re not going to get that insight.”
Nor does Lancaster think that comments submitted by the public should be shared with the private entity that has a forestry lease on the public land. He explains:
When you click on the viewer, you have to click on “I agree,” with the disclaimer that forfeits your right to not have your communications shared with the Crown licensee … I think that the public should only be forced to engage with the government if they want to participate in the discussion, and not be forced to engage with these private entities that stand to economically gain from this. Because often when you submit comments, your reply is not from Lands and Forestry staff. It’s often from WestFor staff or Port Hawkesbury Paper staff …
Lancaster says there is also a major problem with map accessibility and people’s ability to see and comment on the map if they don’t have reliable and fast internet service.
“Interactive map” … for those with good internet
Those who subscribe to the service receive emails from DLF notifying them whenever the map has been updated with newly proposed harvests, and providing them with the link to the map.
The June 4 emailed notice of the latest update of the HPMV also came with a directive that stated:
Starting June 2, 2021 [two days before the directive was sent], only emails submitted using the comment function on the Harvest Plans Map Viewer will be considered during the harvest plan review process. For additional help on how to make a comment please see the “HELP” link at the top of the Harvest Plans Map Viewer. The intent of the Harvest Plans Map Viewer is to seek information currently not known to the department at a site level that is being proposed for harvest. If your comment provides information about the proposed harvest plan that is specific to the site, the department may contact you for further detail.
The Halifax Examiner contacted DLF to ask what the directive meant for the way the HPMV was to be used. DLF spokesperson Deborah Bayer replied:
There has been no change to how feedback on a given parcel is received, reviewed, or considered by the Department. Public feedback on all proposed harvest plans is reviewed by department resource professionals, which include foresters and biologists, to help ensure proposed harvest prescriptions are appropriate. The intent is to seek information currently not known to the department at a site level that is being proposed for harvest using the existing online map tools, as opposed to general comments and correspondence which we often see. Comments that are not site specific should be directed to official correspondence or local area offices. We will review the wording online to avoid any future confusion.
Lancaster concedes that the policy has always been that comments were to be submitted via the map’s comment function, and that comments were supposed to be site specific. But that doesn’t make it a good policy, in Lancaster’s view, and he doesn’t always abide by it:
I’ll send an email to both their research teams and the map viewer saying, “I found this endangered species of bird adjacent to the stands.” And they’ll come back and say, “We’re not talking about adjacent sites. We’re talking about this immediate stand.” And with species of birds, especially, but also a lot of the key species like moose, just because you haven’t found them in that exact immediate stand, if you found them 100 meters away, it’s not like the harvesting is not going to have an impact on them. But those arguments have been dismissed in the past, with them saying that it’s not site specific. So that hasn’t changed. Neither has the fact that technically the comments are supposed to be directed through the map viewer. But occasionally, when I submit comments to the research staff, who I’m hoping have a more sympathetic ear, that will be my directive from them: “Okay, if you have concerns, please submit them to the Harvest Plans Map Viewer.
Lancaster is also concerned that DLF will be excluding many people who are not able to use the map’s comment function because they have no or poor internet service.
“If they’re going to be rigidly adhering to that [policy], they are essentially cutting off about probably about 30% of Nova Scotians’ ability to submit meaningful input and engage in the process,” he says.
“Woefully inadequate process”
Lancaster describes the HPMV system as a “woefully inadequate process to facilitate meaningful engagement with the public.” In his view:
The process is so flawed and difficult, with so many complaints, that you have to wonder why they are not endeavouring to make it more accessible and functional, facilitating genuine discussion and debate with the public.
Lancaster also notes that the as-yet-to-be-implemented Lahey Report, completed nearly three years ago, emphasizes the need for “openness, transparency, collaboration, and accountability” on the part of the government. He cites recommendation 38 in the Lahey Report:
DNR [now DLF] must deeply and pervasively embrace a culture of transparency and accountability. It must institute the information management, sharing, and distribution systems needed to put that culture into routine operational practice, including (a) adopting a practice of giving written reasons for decisions on matters of public interest wherever practicable, and (b) measures to prevent the protection of privacy provisions of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, as well as bureaucratic systems or resistance to disclosure, from inappropriately limiting the operation of the freedom of information provisions of the same legislation as it relates to public policy on forestry or the management of Crown lands.
Says Lancaster of the June 4 directive from DLF on the harvest map:
This rigid adherence to policy makes a difficult process even more cumbersome, so the question must be when will the DLF begin to implement changes that follow through on Lahey’s recommendations of increased accessibility and transparency?
The Examiner sent several questions to DLF about the HPVM process of informing the public about upcoming cuts on Crown land and receiving feedback from the public, but has not yet received replies to those questions.
Bev Wigney is the founder and moderator of the Annapolis Royal & Area Environment & Ecology group on Facebook, and she describes herself as a “lifelong naturalist.”
She believes that the Department of Lands and Forestry has nefarious reasons for the directive on June 4, saying comments on proposed cuts had to be submitted using the HPMV. Wigney tells the Examiner:
I suspect that the purpose of not allowing emails is to stifle dissent. Since people started sending emails instead of struggling to get the HPMV site to work, I’m sure DLF is receiving a lot more comments on parcels than ever before. By disallowing emails, it is going to discourage a lot of people who would otherwise have commented. What probably bothers me the most about all of this is that we do not have any other means than the HPMV of registering comments or expressing dissatisfaction. No one at DLF wants to hear from the public and so we keep being directed to use the HPMV. In the absence of any other means of officially recording our comments, there is no accountability. We require a system that records all comments, whether by HPMV or by email so that this information is available for future reference if ever needed. My guess is that this is largely why DLF has put an end to email commenting. No email comments = no official record of public dissent. I have a problem with that.
Wigney says that over the past couple of years, she has tried to help members of the Annapolis Environment & Ecology group submit comments using the HPMV system, without much success:
At first, I thought that they just didn’t understand how to make it work. However, after reviewing the steps involved with several determined individuals, it became obvious that this is a problem with the website. It is clunky and doesn’t load well on our poor rural internet connections. In fact, for some, the map won’t even load, or it will load, but the parcels that are up for comment will not appear, so there is no way to submit a comment as this is done by clicking on the parcel upon which you wish to comment.
I’m not at all surprised that many people have become so frustrated that they will not attempt to use the site anymore. I encouraged those who could not get the site to work, to send an email with the parcel ID number in the subject line, and submit a comment by that method. That seemed acceptable for a while — Forestry Maps accepted the emails — but now they are being rejected.
Wigney concludes, “If it [the Harvest Plan Viewer Map] only works well for those in urban areas with good internet connections, that doesn’t do us much good in the areas of the province where the forests are being razed all around us.”