The Department of Lands and Forestry (DLF) has proposed that more than 455 hectares (1,124 acres) of forests in the St. Margaret’s Bay area be put on the chopping block, with roughly 207 ha (511 acres) within the boundaries of the community proposed Ingram River Wilderness Area (IRWA).
According to Mike Lancaster, the Stewardship Coordinator of the St. Margaret’s Bay Stewardship Association (SMBSA), research and sampling of the area roughly 15,000 hectares in size shows that it’s a “biodiversity hotspot,” providing habitat for a number of endangered species including mainland moose, Canada warbler, chimney swift, olive-sided flycatcher and common nighthawk. Fourteen species of concern including lichens, bird species, and flora have also been documented in the area. 1 Lancaster also says there are seven old growth forest sites including one containing a 401-year-old eastern hemlock.
I reached out to the DLF to find out why they posted the parcels given they fall within the boundaries of the community-proposed wilderness area, but did not receive a response in time for publication.
Lancaster has also reached out to the department, so far to no avail: “We have been engaging with department staff and are hopeful that these cuts will be deferred, given their very high, and sensitive biodiversity values.”
Back in 2015 the conservation group approached DLF about the possibility of creating the protected area on some of the land the province acquired from Resolute Forest Products (Bowater) three years earlier. When the Liverpool pulp and paper giant shut down and sold its assets to the province, the deal included more than 600,000 ha (1.5 million acres) of land holdings in the western part of the province. At the time, Lancaster’s group was part of a ground swell of public opposition that had been mounting for years in the province over the unrelenting spate of clearcutting, the liquidation of forests, and the impacts this was having on forest-dependent species. Many had high hopes that the ecologically sensitive areas of the newly acquired crown lands would be identified and protected. 2
But while Lancaster’s group had been working in good faith to protect the wilderness area, the province seemed to have other plans in mind. In fact, plans to increase road access in the area for logging companies had been in the making for years.
In October 2019, a few months after the government made an official commitment to the SMBSA to put a stop to future clearcuts in the proposed wilderness area until a “biodiversity assessment” was completed, Lancaster was surveying part of the forest and came upon a cut swath that looked like a new road, right through the proposed wilderness area. He found that some of the trees that were cut were between 150 and 180 years old.
At the time, Lancaster questioned how the clearcut could have been sanctioned given the unwritten promise of a clearcutting moratorium, at least until the biodiversity assessment was completed.
The then minister of DLF, Iain Rankin, who is now the province’s premier, said the road was necessary for the Highway 103 Twinning Project — a 22 km expansion from Upper Tantallon to Hubbards. The official explanation was that the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure (TIR) was required to provide road access to the private properties that would be cut off as a result of the twinning. DLF also clarified that the moratorium excluded any cutting associated with the twinning project.
But documents obtained through Freedom of Information dating back to 2016, and reported in the Halifax Examiner here and here, revealed that the decision to build the access road was years in the making and was made in part to reduce transportation costs for Scotian Materials, which operates a nearby quarry and asphalt plant, and in part to increase access to the crown forests for logging companies. The crown lands in the St. Margaret’s Bay area, including the community proposed IRWA are currently under licence to Westfor, which holds a ten-year “fibre allocation” on the western crown lands.
These photos show the original clearcut swath and the completed Ingram access road. The construction of the road, which wasn’t necessary since another road, though longer, already existed, required a significant amount of “vertical alignment” meaning a combination of blasting, excavation and a seven-metre (23-feet) gravel top in order to bring the hill side down to a manageable and drivable slope. Photos: Linda Pannozzo
Lancaster says an important distinction that needs to be made is that, unlike the access road, the proposed parcels within the IRWA are not a violation of the original commitment the government made with the SMBSA for the biodiversity assessment process. That’s because “in the past year we bumped out our boundaries to include this area because we documented the presence of five species at risk and 14 of conservation concern, as well as seven sites that contained old growth or high conservation value forests,” he explains.
“The inclusion of this area also connected our proposal to the South Panuke Wilderness Area and did a much better job of facilitating cross-province connectivity, which was one of our primary goals.”
“Proposing these parcels is exemplary that things on the ground have not changed and that’s kind of the broader concern about this: that the work of the community and the perspectives and values are still not being integrated into how these decisions move forward,” says Lancanster.
While the official messaging around the need for the new access road was “extremely duplicitous” and “damning,” and while the road fragmented an established and documented parcel of old growth forest, Lancaster says it just added to an already “tremendous amount” of access into the region.
Lancaster explains that because the lands within the proposed wilderness area were formerly Bowater lands, there has always been a reticence within the management of the DLF to protect it. Both Jon Porter, the executive director of renewable resources, and Allan Smith, director of resource management, worked for Bowater Mersey before taking senior positions in the department. 3
“They were directly involved in the management of that land [when employed by Bowater] so it’s always been the approach from [government] forestry that this area will be managed as a working forest.”
Having just seen the new, state-of-the-art access road, I can’t help but wonder if the machinations within government to increase access to the area — coupled with its proximity to Halifax, a newly twinned highway, as well as an interchange — don’t point to some long-term plan involving a spate of logging followed by the sale of at least part of the land to the private sector for development.
Court victories for environmentalists
This latest news about the proposed (but not yet approved) cuts in a community-proposed wilderness area comes as just another betrayal of public trust.
Twelve years ago an extensive public consultation began that culminated in the Natural Resources Strategy, which included a number of citizen-led targets that if implemented would have transformed the industry and aligned it with the value that Nova Scotians place on intact, biodiverse forests. That strategy was abandoned by the McNeil government and instead it launched the Lahey Review—An Independent Review of Forest Practices, which was released in August of 2018.
Lahey observed “a significant gap” between what the department says it’s doing to manage forestry on Crown land and “how it is actually managing forestry on Crown land.” He laid bare how DLF uses the term “science” to support forestry practices that have no actual basis in any scientific field, let alone the field of ecology, but instead uses its own version of “in‐house” science, “with limited resources, without engagement with external academic experts, including through the peer review process.”
He recommended a “triad” approach to forest management that includes protected areas, high production forest areas where forests are managed like farms, and an “ecologically based matrix” where harvesting would follow ecological principles. In the “matrix” there would be a lot less clearcutting, and other forest values would be taken into consideration.
Since the Lahey review it could be argued that those advocating for a shift away from industrial forest management towards ecological forestry have been winning some important battles.
For instance, when a group of naturalists stepped up to announce that they were taking the province to court over its dereliction of duty with regards to protecting species at risk, they actually won. The judge’s decision essentially ordered DLF to obey provincial laws when it comes to protecting endangered, threatened, and vulnerable species. There are currently 60 plants and animals identified under the province’s Endangered Species Act.
In October of last year, when endangered mainland moose habitat was being threatened by logging on crown land near Rockypoint and Napier Lakes southeast of Weymouth, Extinction Rebellion protesters were able to maintain a spirited blockade for 55 days — even as winter fast approached. Westfor applied for and was granted a temporary injunction and nine protesters were arrested by the RCMP for ignoring the injunction.
But about a week ago the Examiner reported that while Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Kevin Coady granted WestFor a permanent injunction to prevent protesters from blockading those particular crown lands, he ruled against Westfor’s request to extend the injunction to other sites in the province where it has harvests scheduled. Coady also did not order the group to pay the costs of the legal proceeding saying, “This organization, and similar public interest groups, are well-intentioned and play a role in our modern-day democracy.”
Then last week DLF Minister Chuck Porter introduced Bill 4, a proposed Biodiversity Act for the province, reincarnating an earlier version of the Act that ultimately didn’t pass because the government decided more consultation was required. The Act is supported by a myriad of environmental organizations in the province, including the Ecology Action Centre.
According to East Coast Environmental Law, the proposed Biodiversity Act would give the minister power to establish Biodiversity Management Zones (BMZ) on crown land as well as on private lands, with the consent of the landowner. The proposed Act also gives DLF the power to issue fines as well as a Biodiversity Emergency Order to “prevent, control, manage, or eliminate serious adverse effects to biodiversity.”
Despite these “wins” in the court system, as well as the promising prospect of enhanced biodiversity protections, what’s happening on the ground remains unchanged. For instance, two of the six representative endangered species cited in the landmark court case referred to above — the mainland moose and the Canada warbler — have been documented in the proposed IRWA. Yet, little if anything is being done to protect them.
Eating away at our life support systems
Jacob Fillmore is trying to speak on behalf of the forest and its inhabitants, and not just metaphorically. His hunger strike outside Province House began on March 7 in an attempt to put pressure on the government to at least place a moratorium on clearcutting until Lahey’s recommendations are implemented. His frustration has been building as a result of this protracted inertia.
“I recognize that a hunger strike is quite an extreme measure to take to get my message heard, but I think it’s time for extreme measures,” Fillmore told The Guardian. “We really don’t have any time to lose.”
In a brief interview on Facebook, Fillmore says he’s feeling weaker, but positive after seeing the article in The Guardian. When I asked him why he was willing to risk his own health and wellbeing he explained that the consequences of climate change — rising sea levels and food insecurity — will mean his choices in the future will be severely limited.
“A lack of biodiversity has unimaginable consequences [and] we won’t be able to turn back time. It is true I must put my health first, but I must also look to the future, and my health then. I can choose to eat, or not, now, but when I face the consequences of what we have done to the planet, I will have no choice.”
“I’m frustrated because I don’t feel there is time to waste, and the people in charge are not taking the problem seriously,” he continued. “I don’t know how to affect change, and the future scares me. I don’t know what to do. I want to do a hunger strike because I’m scared for my future. I’m happy that Rankin was elected premier but his plan is not ambitious enough.”
While few among us would ever do what Fillmore is doing, his message is unassailable: while we wait (and we’ve waited for so long) some of the most intact, biodiverse forests in the province — housing mainland moose and other species on the brink of extinction — are either vanishing or being heavily impoverished.
A few weeks ago I asked Lahey for an interview. One of the things I wanted to ask him was if he felt the province had been dragging its feet on implementing his recommendations. But Lahey said he had to decline the interview for now: “I am writing an evaluation that I hope to have finished in the near future, subject to a lot of technical refinements that will probably be necessary once I have a close-to-final draft.”
I think Lahey’s voice could be an influential one right now.
In his report, Lahey called for the implementation of ecological forestry, “with an emphasis on long-rotation stand development and multi-aged stand structures,” as well as “accelerated and improved data collection on the existence of old forests across all unprotected crown lands.”
I worry, however, that — after decades of liquidation forestry, the unabated acceleration of industrial practices into the western crown lands, and the failure to implement Lahey’s recommendations on the ground in any timely manner — the kinds of forests with ecosystems and biodiversity worthy of protection are vanishing, and along with them, the species that depend on them.
As for the parcels within the proposed wilderness area boundaries — they can be deferred and even cancelled.
Premier Rankin could do that in a heartbeat if he wanted to send a clear signal that real change was in the air.
Lancaster urges the public to engage in the public consultation process, submit comments, and help to protect these five Species at Risk and old forests. The deadline for public comment on the six parcels just announced is April 20th.
- Species of concern that have been documented in areas immediately surrounding the proposed cuts include yellow band lichen, blistered tarpaper lichen, blistered jellyskin lichen, southern twayblade, red-breasted nuthatch, shaggy fringed lichen, fringe lichen, red crossbill, small yellow pond-lily, Swainson’s thrush, beechdrops, long-eared owl, fisher, and Canada jay. ↩
- Lancaster says the “saga” to protect the ecologically sensitive areas began with the “Buy Back the Mersey” campaign, which brought together more than 30 groups and called on the government to buy the lands in the first place. Increased protections and the exploration of options for community forests were among the group’s hopes at the time. Others saw it as a chance for the government to expand value-added industries, which manage for quality, not quantity. But neither of these visions would prevail. ↩
- Jon Porter has been at the helm of the DLF renewable resources branch since 2014. Prior to that he managed Bowater Mersey’s woodlands, which now include the lands of the proposed IRWA. I would argue that during his tenure as a civil servant, Porter was faithful to the large industrial players — a true “company man” — who sabotaged any progress towards ecological forestry. For instance, in 2010, during the consultation process that led to the Natural Resource Strategy, he wrote a dissenting report and argued that any new regulations to control harvesting practices “should not be implemented.” The government recently announced that Porter will be retiring at the end of the month. ↩