In recent days you might have received an email from the Department of Lands and Forestry (DLF) inviting you to answer a survey about its State of the Forest report (SOF), first published in 2008, and updated in 2016. Using data collected by the DLF, the document purportedly describes the changing condition of the forest, and whether the forest “resource” is being used sustainably. 

According to the email from Heidi Higgins, the State of the Forest Project Team Co-Lead, the department is “working to improve” the State of the Forest report by asking Nova Scotians to complete a survey “in hopes that we can better understand how to improve our report to meet your needs.” She says the survey is part of the department’s response to William Lahey’s recommendations in the 2018 Independent Review of Forest Practices. 

This isn’t the first time in the last two years the department has come up with a project of questionable merit. As The Examiner reported here, in the spring of last year it hired DG Communications, a public relations firm with ties to the forest industry, to assess the department’s progress in meeting Lahey’s calls for better transparency and engagement with the public. 

With the latest survey, I asked the department about how many people it was sent to, how they were ensuring that a representative sample of the Nova Scotia population is receiving it, what response rate they were hoping for, and if they could point me to where Lahey recommended a survey on this subject?  

I have yet to receive a response.  

As you may recall, Lahey’s review exposed the dysfunctional culture that exists in the DLF and laid bare how the department uses the term “science” to support forestry practices that have no actual basis in any scientific field, let alone the field of ecology. Lahey observed how it often uses its own “in-house” science “with limited resources, without engagement with external academic experts, including through the peer review process.” He pointed out how there was a “significant gap” between what the department says it’s doing to manage Crown land forests, and what it’s actually doing. 

Ultimately, Lahey recommended a “triad” approach to forest management that includes three elements: 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.

I’ve written openly about my frustration with the department’s inertia in actually implementing Lahey’s recommendations on the ground, so I’ll be blunt here too: This survey is a waste of precious time. 

Not only is it unnecessary, given the vast amount of meaningful public input the government already has on forestry-related issues, it’s redundant since as part of the Review, Lahey had already commissioned the Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute (MTRI) for an independent take on the province’s SOF report. [1]MTRI’s 29-page analysis of the State of the Forest reporting can be found at the very end of the Addendum to Lahey’s Review: https://novascotia.ca/natr/forestry/Forest_Review/FP_Addendum.pdf According to Lahey, one of the organization’s “key recommendations” was that the DLF fashion the SOF report on Canada’s Sustainable Forest Management Criteria and Indicators and “collaboratively adapt them to the Nova Scotia Context.” 

Lahey also pointed to another of MTRI’s findings. “While some reported trends have strong supporting data,” some of the data for “key ecological trends” was lacking or unavailable. 

“Perhaps an urgent outcome of such a finding is that much greater attention is needed by the provincial government to develop more confident datasets,” he writes.

In its analysis of the SOF, MTRI identified numerous data gaps in the reporting including in social and economic indicators, biodiversity indicators, forest ecosystem carbon indicators, and soil and water indicators. It also noted there was little mention of climate change. In the nearly 30 pages of analysis, MTRI made numerous suggestions about where reference points and data sources could be improved, and where additional research might be needed. 

So we already know what the report needs.

Since both MTRI and Lahey have already committed a great deal of time, effort, and space to instructing the DLF on how to improve the SOF reporting, it begs the question, why the survey? 

That’s a subject I’ll return to. 

Compared to most people, I probably qualify as a bit of a data nerd and I’ll be the first to admit that stories about data quality are not exactly click bait. But since data is often used to justify policy decisions, when it’s inaccurate, or is being deliberately hidden, or manipulated, or its collection is discontinued, I think it’s important for the public to know.

I didn’t re-order the list above. The exercise presents a false choice. 

If I were to place “economic” in first place, that would imply that economics is somehow separate from all the other values. Instead, economics is inextricably linked to forest health, aesthetics, spirituality, ethics, etc. These are all interrelated.

As I’ve written elsewhere, “an intact, optimally functioning forest ecosystem provides, at no cost, a long list of vital services, including climate regulation, habitat and watershed protection, flood and natural pest control, prevention of soil erosion, formation of topsoil, nutrient recycling, and long-term storage of carbon. It also provides us with high quality wood, wild foods, and a place to relax and rest our minds.” 

For instance, long-term timber productivity is itself dependent on the preservation of healthy forest soils, age and species diversity, and other non-timber functions, and yet, these are separate categories. This is delusional. 

The other problem is that the only forest value the department actually counts is timber value. Every other forest value listed, literally counts for nothing. So what’s the point of the exercise?

Skip down to #8 (#7 answers both #5 and #6, but that would have made it a really short survey).

Over the last 15 years or so, the department has changed definitions and shifted some of its data sources, which might not sound like a big deal, but what that does is create breaks in the time series, which makes the detection and reporting of long term trends in crucial indicators of forest condition and sustainable harvest levels impossible. 

I’ll point to a couple glaring examples here.

Let’s take forest age class for instance. Reporting on the age of the forests is something the department has been doing since the 1950s in “forest inventory” reports. The historical trend clearly shows that the province’s forests are getting much younger, and old forests are disappearing. 

But two things happened in the early 2000s. The department created a break in what was a very long time series by using a different data set to report on this crucial indicator of forest condition. They also stopped making the data that had been used for more than five decades available to the public. The result can be seen in both the 2008 and 2016 SOF reports. 

In 2008, SOF did not report a historical trend for forest age, it reported forest age classes over a four-year period beginning in 1998. And, instead of using the data which had been used for decades to report on age class, it turned to Permanent Sample Plot data (PSP), which historically had never been used to report on this indicator. The result was that the PSP data showed the existence of a significantly higher proportion of mature and old forests than the previous data did. 

First, here’s what the historical trend looks like, using GIS inventory data, dating back to 1958[2]Full disclosure: I used to work for GPI Atlantic and was involved in researching past forest inventory reports and analysing forest age class trends. For more detail on the use of GIS data versus PSP … Continue reading:

Here’s what the department published for forest age class in the 2008 SOF report: 

Inexplicably, in the 2016 SOF report, instead of updating the albeit short trendline in forest age using the same data (PSP), the department instead opted to report on forest age in a way to make it completely incomparable to the earlier report:

Notice how the vertical or Y axis values are different. In 2008 the age class categories were expressed in terms of provincial forest area in hectares. While this isn’t ideal — it doesn’t show what proportion of the total forest is in each age class — the 2016 reporting is even less meaningful. In 2016 age class was expressed in terms of the proportion of the permanent sample plots themselves. Also notice how age was decreasing in the 2008 SOF, but in 2016 is increasing for age classes above 60 years. This not only doesn’t make any sense, it isn’t meaningful because it does nothing to show us the changing condition of the forest. 

In addition, indicators reported in 2008 were no longer reported in 2016: in 2008 annual harvest allocations and annual stumpage revenue were reported, but neither were updated in 2016. 

By 2016 there was also a new “technical” definition in place for clearcutting, one that is not aligned with the National Forestry Database (NFD), making it difficult to square the department’s claims with what’s presented in the national database. 

For instance, in the 2017 SOF report update, the department applied its new definition back in time to 1990, which had the following effects: a) it highly exaggerated the decline in clearcutting over that time period, and b) it underreports the incidence of clearcutting as a harvest practice because it does not include certain even-aged management practices, such as shelterwood as a form of clearcutting. [3]The idea behind shelterwood harvesting is to leave some of the established trees to allow for new seedlings to grow in their shade or to remove all the mature trees leaving behind some of the young … Continue reading

By removing this type of even-aged management from the umbrella term “clearcut,” the government is just playing with semantics, in an attempt to make its track record on public land appear better. 

According to the most recent data from the NFD, 82% of crown land harvested in 2017 was clearcut, up from 80% the year before. But when you look at the SOF report, the government is reporting a figure closer to 65% clearcut in that year.

In 2006, two years before the DLF’s first SOF report was published, it had been admonished by Nova Scotia’s Auditor General (AG) for not having regular, comprehensive, or public reporting relating to sustainable forestry in the province.

The AG also reported on whether the department was “appropriately accountable for the sustainability of the timber supply” — which is one of the department’s key responsibilities. Auditor General Jacques Lapointe noted numerous areas where the department had failed to report publicly — on long term trend information, on the state of the forests, and on progress toward sustainability goals. In his report, Lapointe recommended that the department “include long-term comparative and trend information in its proposed state of the forest report.”

The AG report also noted that in 1997 — nearly a decade before a SOF report was finally published — the government, in a Position Paper, recommended the publication of a SOF report to provide “an assessment of the ability of the province’s forests to meet various demands, including sustainability of harvests and related data.” It also recommended the reports be updated every three to five years. 

Clearly the SOF reports are falling short of what’s been recommended in the past. 

In answer to this question, I’d like to see the department fulfill these previous recommendations: provide meaningful, comparable, historical data presented on all the key indicators of forest health and condition as well as on the sustainability of harvests. 

Since this is the last question, I won’t mince any words. I think the survey is just the latest attempt — in a growing list of attempts — to continue delaying the implementation of Lahey’s recommendations and real ecological forestry in this province. 

In Nova Scotia Forest Notes, an eminently readable and highly informative blog, retired Dalhousie University biology professor David Patriquin recently observed that the department currently has nine projects in place, including the new survey, and all “appear to be well behind schedule,” with “poor coordination/integration.”

Patriquin says he started the blog because he wanted “to understand the apparent gulf between what we are told by [the department] about their prescriptions for forest harvests in Nova Scotia — that they are ecosystem based, designed to stimulate natural disturbance and to be sustainable — and what we see around us, which are massive clearcuts.” 

He says that since the 2018 unveiling of the Lahey recommendations, “the status quo of logging on Crown lands has continued pretty well unabated and the good will generated immediately following the Lahey Report has largely dissipated.”

He offers a very practical suggestion on “how some of that good will might be recuperated.” If ecological forestry is the end goal, then the government should “put meaningful breaks on the status quo of forestry operations and introduce precautionary measures to ensure that biodiversity conservation has priority over wood supply while we wait for the full implementation of the Lahey recommendations.”

In other words, at the rate things are going, if the department continues to sanction the trashing of all the high value crown forests that remain, there won’t be anything left that’s intact enough to practice ecological forestry on, if and when Lahey’s recommendations do finally get implemented.

The DLF knows what needs to be done — it’s laid out in exhaustive detail in the Lahey review. Forget the survey, just start improving the state of the forest.

Linda Pannozzo is an award-winning freelance journalist and author of two books and calls Nova Scotia home.

References

References
1 MTRI’s 29-page analysis of the State of the Forest reporting can be found at the very end of the Addendum to Lahey’s Review: https://novascotia.ca/natr/forestry/Forest_Review/FP_Addendum.pdf
2 Full disclosure: I used to work for GPI Atlantic and was involved in researching past forest inventory reports and analysing forest age class trends. For more detail on the use of GIS data versus PSP data please take a look at The Halifax Examiner’s five-part series: “Biomass, Freedom of Information, and the Silence of the DNR Company Men.”
3 The idea behind shelterwood harvesting is to leave some of the established trees to allow for new seedlings to grow in their shade or to remove all the mature trees leaving behind some of the young seedlings. Either way, eventually the mature forest is removed to make way for an even-aged forest.

Linda Pannozzo

Linda Pannozzo is an award-winning author and freelance journalist based in Nova Scotia. email: linda@halifaxexaminer.ca; Website: lindapannozzo.ca

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  1. Great journalism, and heartbreaking. I fear until people in the metro areas really understand what is going on and really get after their government MLA’s, and scare them good about where their vote is going in 2021, nothing will happen.

  2. Linda – Thanks for another excellent analysis of what is happening (and not happening) with regard to implementing the Lahey report and moving in the direction of sustainable forestry. As we watch forest and after forest go down right before our eyes, it is incredible that Lands & Forestry continues to drag its heels and also obfuscate data. If they were truly sincere about ecological forestry, there would be a complete halt to the current heavy-handed *variable retention* and *shelterwood* allocations (just “clear cutting” in disguise). Instead, it is full steam ahead , steering straight toward felling the most ecologically valuable forests remaining on Crown land. What is happening is immoral, irresponsible and a total disgrace. When will we see the end of this ecocide?