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It all sounded so good.
About a month ago, Nova Scotia Power (NSP) announced that it “set a renewable energy record,” and was moving “toward a lower carbon future.” In 2015 nearly 27 per cent of the electricity generated in the province came from renewable sources – up from only nine per cent eight years ago – and exceeded the legislated requirement of 25 per cent. Most of it came from wind, hydro, and tidal, and about three per cent of all power came from burning biomass – organic material from the forest, the majority in the form of trees. That might not sound like much but as NSP claims to have rapidly transitioned to renewables “faster than any other utility in Canada,” biomass helped it get there.
But as I looked deeper into these numbers and into reports of biomass harvesting ever since the Port Hawkesbury biomass plant opened in 2013, that fuzzy, warm feeling I was getting about using renewable energy, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and still being able to power my electric milk frother was quickly being replaced by the realization that we’re being fed a bill of goods.
I soon learned that the exercise of meeting targets was more a numbers game — and in this case like shuffling the deck chairs — than an honest attempt at staving off the worst of climate change. I also learned that cutting trees for biomass is part of Nova Scotia’s “renewable energy” bundle into the foreseeable future and is set to increase.
The problem is, calling biomass “renewable” in Nova Scotia is about as inconsistent as giving up liberty for freedom. It’s basically a lie and in the context of how forestry is done in this province it’s about as Orwellian as you can get.
Biomass Starts Here
According to NSP, biomass allows them to supply Nova Scotia with renewable energy “even when the wind isn’t blowing.” That’s because the plant is a “must run” facility, running 24/7, providing what are called “firm renewables” to the grid. According to Catherine Abreu, the Energy Coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre (EAC), the biomass facility was designated a “must run” because the Port Hawkesbury Paper (PHP) mill next door needed the steam to operate. Recall, this is the pulp and paper mill that just four years ago received a $125 million aid package from Darrell Dexter’s NDP government, on top of the $37 million it spent to keep the bankrupt NewPage mill in “hot idle” while the they found a new buyer. Well, that rebooted paper mill now under new ownership extracts about 25 per cent of the steam produced at the boiler for its own purposes, to keep its energy costs down and its business case viable.
“So there are times when the electricity demand in the province is low enough that coal stations get ramped down and renewable sources get turned off. So wind power gets dumped,” Abreu says. “NSP actually makes the decision not to integrate the power being generated by wind farms into the grid because there’s nowhere to send it.”
But the biomass plant never stops burning wood.NSP spokesperson Beverley Ware says that NSP is required to provide 350 GWh of “firm renewable” electricity, which comes from biomass.
Given the close ties between the biomass plant in Point Tupper and PHP it was a surprise to hear how NSP plans to meet the upcoming 2020 target of 40 per cent renewables. In its January news release it announced it would do this by increasing wind, delivering hydro electricity from Muskrat Falls and by increasing biomass. It said that in 2020 biomass would account for seven per cent of the electricity generated, more than double what it is now. The projected increase in biomass is based on a number of assumptions, one of which is that more wood will be cut, but another is that by 2020 NSP assumes that the paper mill will be “offline,” or to put it bluntly, shut down.According to Ware, there will be an increase in forestry-based biomass to 3.2 per cent. The other assumptions that were made in preparing for the Integrated Resource Plan include a 5 per cent … Continue reading
So without a mill to extract steam there would be more steam available to generate so-called “renewable” electricity to the grid — an emission reduction on paper but not in reality. Mill or no mill, NSP assumes that more forests will be needed to meet the 2020 target. When the plant is running at full capacity, producing 60 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 50,000 homes, it requires the input of 50 truckloads of wood a day or 730,000 tonnes a year. That’s a lot of wood, and the pressure to cut night and day is real.
From the very start, everyone sensed that pressure like that doesn’t support good forestry practices. If biomass was going to be used for electricity in this province, and indeed qualify as being renewable, there had to be some guarantees. In 2009, Cape Breton University president David Wheeler and Michelle Adams led the “stakeholder consultation” process for a Renewable Energy Strategy for Nova Scotia to provide options to help meet the province’s renewable energy targets. They recommended that biomass harvesting should not proceed without the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) developing “regulations outlining the highest possible standards expected for sustainable forestry practices as it applies to biomass harvesting for the purpose of energy generation.” They said it was needed in order to “provide guarantees on ecological integrity.”
But according to Matt Miller, the Forestry Program Coordinator at the EAC, no such standards were ever created. He says that in 2010 John MacDonell, the Minister of the Department of Natural Resources in the NDP government made the commitment to “prohibit” the removal of whole trees from a forest site but later the government backtracked and backed off on wording.The DNR defines whole-tree harvesting as a forest operation that removes the entire tree including the stem, branches, stump and roots. “Just before the 2013 election they announced they were going to go forward with the prohibition but the consultation period ran beyond the election, which they lost,” he explains. Currently the only regulations that govern harvest practices are the Wildlife Habitat and Watercourse Protection Regulations, neither of which adequately addresses biomass or whole-tree harvesting.These regulations are mandatory on all lands private or crown — and require one clump of 30 trees left standing for every eight hectares of harvest and a 20-metre buffer around all streams larger … Continue reading
Around the same time that MacDonell was advocating for the prohibition at the DNR, hearings were underway at the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board (NSUARB), where NSP was asking for permission to undertake the $200 million biomass plant — a capital investment that would be passed on to Nova Scotia ratepayers. NSPs latest proposal was similar to the one rejected in 2009, but this time they promised an additional 150 jobs.In 2009 the CBC reported the NSUARB ruled that it didn’t have the authority to approve an operational expense for an amount that would affect power rates for more than two decades. It also said it … Continue readingDespite concerns raised about the prospect of more clearcutting to feed the boiler, it was approved.
For its part, NSP — the largest purchaser of biomass in the province — said that only stem wood would be used and that the tops and branches would be left to rot “because they’re necessary to restore nutrients in the soil.” But in the absence of any rules governing biomass harvesting, these kinds of standards are difficult to enforce across the board.
The EAC says that given this regulatory vacuum “biomass destruction is entirely predictable” and that whole tree harvesting has not only driven practices to an all-time low, threatening future forest productivity and resulting in a further loss of crucial habitat for forest-dependent species and the demise of value-added hardwood businesses, but it’s probably not even making a dent in greenhouse gas emissions — all subjects we’ll return to.
But one thing no one predicted is that the pressure to feed the boiler could be resulting in a practice far worse than clearcutting.
From Forests to Blueberries?
It hadn’t even been a year since the NSP biomass plant in Point Tupper was up and running, and already there were rumours swirling.
The Nova Scotia Woodlot Owners and Operators Association, a group that represents private non-industrial woodlot owners, issued a warning to its membership to watch out for unscrupulous biomass harvesters. At the time they had received numerous reports of logging contractors encouraging landowners to sign “development agreements” to convert their woodlots to non-forestry use before a biomass harvest. The practice, it said, was being used as a “cover” for contractors wanting to ignore wildlife and watercourse regulations. “The harvester gains a small amount of wood that should have been left standing… and the landowners are left with financial, environmental, and legal risks.”
Will Martin is the president of the NSWOOA. He tells me that according to credible sources within their membership and networks, the practice is still occurring, mostly in the eastern part of the province. He says the “pseudo” development agreements claim the forestland is being converted to agriculture, which allows the logging company to cut buffer zones and not leave any tree clumps — harvest practices that would not be permitted under the Forest Sustainability Regulations — helping them to meet their volume commitments.According to Matt Miller at the EAC, the economic meltdown of 2008-2009 had a huge impact on the “contracting capacity” in Nova Scotia. While company contractors remained relatively stable, … Continue reading
In exchange the woodlot owner often receives more money, but Martin says in return it “exposes the landowner to a significant liability.” He explains that when forestland undergoes this “pseudo-conversion” to agricultural land the owner not only loses the $0.25/ha fixed tax rate, but he/she might additionally be faced with a hefty tax bill. “If they don’t register as a farm, be a member of the Federation of Agriculture, or have a farm business number, then they’re not actually developing the land into a farm and will have to pay the standard property tax in their municipality.” Martin says this can amount to thousands of dollars. Another potential issue for landowners is that if they received any silviculture funding in the last 10 years and then converted to agriculture, that money could be clawed back.
“The shocking thing is,” he adds, “this is the textbook definition of deforestation and we’re allowing it to happen in this province.”
In fact, on a global level, climate change is only one (albeit a very frightening one) of the ways that humans are destroying our life support systems. In 2011 a study that appeared in the journal SolutionsSteffen, W., J. Rockstrom, and R. Costanza. 2011. “How Defining Planetary Boundaries can Transform Our Approach to Growth.” Solutions. Vol. 2, No. 3. listed nine “planetary boundaries” that underpin life on earth; there is only so much growth that the earth can absorb and that there are safe limits in each area. But, according to the study, we’ve exceeded safe limits in four:
• carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere;
• biochemical flows and the influx of fertilizers into water systems;
• the accelerated loss of species diversity and the far reaching affects this has on ecosystems; and,
• the deterioration of land systems because of forest-clearing.
The question is, are forestlands being permanently destroyed in the name of Nova Scotia’s renewable energy future?
Beverley Ware, the NSP spokesperson, tells me that 42 per cent of the biomass NSP bought in 2014 was bark and sawdust from sawmills and paper mills — waste created by existing sawmill and paper mill operations—but 58 per cent came from cutting down forests and of that nearly a third was “from land clearing for purposes other than forestry, such as agriculture or blueberry lands.” There’s no way of knowing how much land has been converted to agriculture as a result of the NSP biomass plant because NSP won’t disclose acreage amounts “for commercial reasons.”
But I asked Ware about the 2015 NSWOOA warning to its membership about shady practices being used to get biomass volumes up and her initial response was that it was a “year-old rumour,” that the concerns raised by the NSWOOA were not specific to NSP, and that I would do well to contact the DNR, “the most appropriate organization to respond,” to the reports. But when a third of its primary biomass is coming from land being cleared for agriculture, “how does NSP know these lands are truly being converted to agricultural land?” I asked. “NSP requires that if the purpose of the harvest is to convert the land to a non-forestry use our Biomass Procurement Managers have the landowner sign a Landclearing Declaration form that’s provided by the managers,” she replied.
Sounds a lot like the “pseudo” land development agreements Martin is talking about, and I asked Ware about that and if she could send me a copy of the agreement but I hadn’t heard back before this piece was published.
I also contacted the DNR for its response to these reports but have yet to receive a response.
In any case, the issue remains. How much of that land actually became blueberry farms and how much of it was just a cover for unsustainable forestry?
Martin is cautious about pointing a finger at NSP only. He says that although NSP is the “biggest flash point” there’s a lot of biomass harvesting going on in the province by other companies as well, like Great Northern Timber, which sends wood chips overseas and Scotia Biomass, which makes pellets.According to the DNR’s Registry of Buyers, in 2014 six per cent of the total provincial harvest went to energy generation: four per cent to Port Hawkesbury Biomass (PHB) and two per cent to … Continue reading
Martin says that because most of the province’s wood supply comes from small family woodlots, the impacts of these kinds of “dubious business relationships” and unsustainable harvesting practices will be disproportionately felt by them. “My concern is that if these are the kind of games that people have to play to get the volumes they need for those biomass operations now, where are we going to be in five years time?” he asks. “It really doesn’t bode well for the future.”
A Failure to Account
In 2015 Jamie Simpson penned a report on forest biomass energy policy for East Coast Environmental Law (ECELAW) calling into question the carbon impact of widespread biomass use. The report found that because of time-lags in carbon reabsorption, burning forest biomass for electricity was nowhere near as simple as “burn a tree, grow a tree,” and can result in increased CO2 levels for over a century.
The report is replete with photos of biomass cuts, taken by Simpson, some of them reproduced here with permission. Stark images of scarred, completely denuded landscapes. Nearly all organic matter, living and dead, removed and trucked away.
Citing numerous scientific studies, Simpson challenges the assumption that biomass fuel is inherently carbon-neutral:
The assumption that forest biomass is a carbon-neutral fuel source is predicated on an intuitive view that harvested biomass is replaced with new growth of biomass. Much like carrots grown in a garden, so long as an equal quantity of carrots is grown to replace the ones harvested, the overall amount of carrots growing, measured annually, will be constant.
At the forest landscape level, the belief is that when trees start to regrow they will sequester or store up as much carbon as was released to the atmosphere when they were cut and burned. This widely-held assumption of a continual cycle of carbon between the land-based stores and the atmosphere, where the “equilibrium between carbon in vegetation and carbon in the atmosphere is maintained,” is also reflected in the emissions accounting system that guides the Kyoto Protocol, says Simpson, so that the carbon released when a biomass fuel is burned is exempt from being counted towards a nation’s GHG emissions.The Kyoto accounting system is already recognized as being deeply flawed because it was based on production-based accounting rather on consumption-based accounting, which means that countries are … Continue reading
Simpson says that although this exemption has made its way into most national or regional regulations or standards that define renewable energy sources, “forest scientists question the soundness of the biomass carbon-neutrality assumption,” because it fails to account for a number of factors that render the assumption meaningless.
One factor that isn’t accounted for is how a change in land use due to pressure to grow biomass fuels affects carbon levels. Simpson cites one 2009 study out of Princeton University, which estimated that if all the natural forests and savannahs on earth were converted to biomass fuel crop plantations, up to 37 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide could be released into the atmosphere, which is comparable to total human emissions up to the present time.
Biomass fuels are only carbon-neutral to the extent that the “released carbon is eventually reabsorbed by growing vegetation at some later point in time.”
Simpson’s study also highlighted how harvesting methods have an impact on carbon storage over time and that when the intensity of the harvest practice increases there is a corresponding decrease of carbon stored over time. One study concluded that biomass harvesting, which would qualify as very intense, would diminish the forest carbon sink.
Perhaps the most damning accounting failure cited by Simpson is the omission of the impact of whole-tree harvesting on perhaps the most important “resource” of all. Catherine Abreu of the EAC says that the full cost accounting of biomass electricity generation is “still a work in progress.”
“You can measure the emissions directly from a biomass facility and compare it to a coal-fired facility and the emissions from the biomass facility are slightly lower,” says Abreu. “But then you have to count what you’re losing by ripping all those trees out of the ground.”
And what we’re losing is irreplaceable.
The Dirt on Biomass
Donna Crossland is a Forestry Scientist with Parks Canada. She says that long before biomass became an issue she was upset with the impacts of clearcutting, what she now refers to as “good old fashion clearcutting,” because it traditionally only removed the trunks of the trees and left the rest to rot back into the soil. But the whole-tree removal that has become characteristic of biomass harvesting takes everything, trunk, branches, even the roots.
“It’s well accepted in the scientific realm that most of the nutrients in trees are in the roots and fine branches and bark, so when we remove that too, as we’re doing now, it gets into the nutrient issue even more than when it was just clearcutting.” Crossland says that because we’re living on and farming the best soils, the poorest soils were already in the forested areas “and now with biomass harvesting we’re going to make them even poorer.”
While soils are often treated as irrelevant and inanimate, they are now being recognized as complex systems and humanity’s most essential natural resource. Dale Prest, the Ecosystem Services Specialist with Community Forests International, says forest soil research shows “the folly” of neglecting forest soils because only they can “ensure a productive yield of timber into the future.” He’s done research into what happens to the carbon and nitrogen in soils after a clearcut in the Acadian forest and compared two sites on the eastern shore of Nova Scotia, both managed identically until the 1970s until one was clearcut in 1976. Today the stand that was clearcut has regenerated with 35-year old red spruce and balsam fir, while the intact stand is a 120-year old red spruce forest. He found that soil in the clearcut stand had 27 percent less organic matter in the top 50 cm of soil and 26 percent less nitrogren than the intact stand. “If you lose organic matter in your soil, the nutrients will also be lost,” he writes.Dale Prest’s quote taken from “Clear Cutting Causing Long-term Declines in Forest Productivity? Implications of the Forestry Strategy.” NB Naturalist. (2014) … Continue reading Dale says other researchers in Nova Scotia who have encountered this trend report that organic matter takes 70 to 80 years to rebuild to the levels prior to clearing, while nitrogen can take 120 years to recover. This means that any clearcut rotation of less than 120 years is “likely to be unsustainable.”In his article, Prest lists a number of “signs” of decreasing forest soil productivity: the forest is not growing as quickly as we think it should; plantations that were expected to be ready for … Continue reading
And one of these other researchers is Josh Noseworthy. In 2009 he was commissioned by the DNR to look at the effects of biomass harvesting on soil nutrient pools and to see if there were productivity declines associated with harvesting whole trees and the extent to which it might exacerbate the effects of acid rain.In an interview with the CBC in 2012 Tom Clair, a research scientist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, said that Nova Scotia is the only part of the world where acidity has not improved … Continue reading Noseworthy, a master’s student in the Faculty of Forestry and Environmental Management at University of New Brunswick at the time was being supervised by Dr. Paul Arp, a specialist in modelling forest soils. Noseworthy’s thesis was completed in 2012 but his findings have yet to be made public by the DNR. Furthermore, Noseworthy was only able to include in his thesis information for the federally-owned Kejimkujik National Park, and nothing about the rest of the province. In his thesis he writes that this is “due to confidentiality concerns with Nova Scotia forest inventory data,” though there appears to be much more to it.Noseworthy’s thesis can be found here: http://watershed.for.unb.ca/files/Josh_Thesis.pdf
Noseworthy reported that species such as shade-tolerant hardwoods and cedar “stockpile” nutrients in their bark and foliage tissues, even though they may not need them for growth. He says when those trees are cut and taken away, those nutrients are lost, whereas they would replenish the soil if the trees naturally died and decomposed. “If you take away too much, the soils have so little nutrients left that those species who need rich soils can’t even grow there anymore, or if they do, are stunted and deformed because of deficiencies.”
On the other hand, he says that conifers are “very thrifty” and able to grow in nutrient-poor soils. “So even though the soils are poorer, the overall impact of removing trees is less relative to rich soils supporting tolerant hardwoods.”
Noseworthy tells me that it’s not possible to generalize across the board and that every forest site is different:
In some very rich soils, you may be able to take away numerous generations of hardwood trees with no obvious impact. In other cases, the impacts might be obvious after a single harvest. In some areas, even traditional stem-only harvesting won’t be sustainable…but it’s safe to say, that if clear cut, whole-tree harvesting continues without accounting for soil nutrients, there will eventually be a nutrient deficit IF the soils are not fertilized, which has its own set of ecological threats.
Noseworthy says it’s possible to sustainably harvest a forest stand “into perpetuity” without diminishing soil productivity but “this rarely (if ever) can be done by clearcutting.”
In my study, I was able (for the first time I think) to provide an amount that could be harvested sustainably forever, assuming the environment stays the same. Even if the environment changed, you could still update those values and continue to harvest sustainably forever. I’m sure the method I developed could be refined — no one gets it perfectly right the first time, but the point is that we can do it.
On page 174 of his thesis, Noseworthy reports that for Kejimkujik Park the sustainable rate for biomass harvesting would average 4.7 cubic metres/ hectare/ year. Curious to find out what the average harvesting rate was for Nova Scotia, I turned to the National Forestry Database, which reported that in 2013 (the most recent year data were available) the area harvested in Nova Scotia was 29,112 ha, 90 per cent of that clearcut. The Registry of Buyers reported that in that same year the provincial harvest on all lands was 3,453,087 m3. This means that in 2013 an average of 119 cubic metres of wood was cut per hectare.
I asked Noseworthy if he had any thoughts on how that relates to his findings? “I’ll leave that up to you to decide,” he said.
When I asked the DNR about the whereabouts of Noseworthy’s modeling work, the reply was: “DNR has been working to calibrate the soil data and it is an ongoing process that takes time.”
What seems a more plausible explanation is that Noseworthy’s findings raised a red flag about biomass harvesting in regards to future productivity of sites — information the DNR doesn’t want to be made public. If this is true, if science that challenges the status quo is being suppressed in this way by our civil servants, then it not only raises serious questions about transparency and accountability within the department, but it begs the question, in whose interest do they work?
In 1995 University of British Columbia fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly coined the term “shifting baseline syndrome” to describe the phenomenon where each generation of fisheries scientist accepts as a baseline the stock size and species composition that occurred at the beginning of their careers, and uses this to evaluate changes.” When Pauly was writing about this he was referring to fish stocks that were in decline and that with each generation there was “a gradual accommodation” of the creeping loss.
The same could be said about terrestrial life and in this case forest-dependent species — any species that requires forests for food, shelter, breeding, or any other critical aspect of their life cycles. We now know that intensive harvesting practices such as clearcutting and whole tree harvesting deteriorate land systems and destroy habitat. Of course forestry practices aren’t the only cause of forest-dependent species loss. We’re also tearing down forests to build our subdivisions and parking lots, and then there are the effects that acid rain and climate change have on forests too.
All told, there has been a significant decline in species biodiversity on a global level, with species becoming extinct at a rate more than 100 times faster than the previous norm. Scientists argue that this places all earth systems at “high risk” because the loss of a species could have unknown but far reaching implications for ecosystems. If fact, we’ve known for more than two decades that ecosystems with losses in plant and animal biological diversity also showed less resilience — that ability to bounce back after a shock or stress of some kind — and was less able to provide ecosystem services.
So not to be accused of what Pauly describes above, it is essential to consider species loss historically. Nova Scotia has already lost much of its original biodiversity. It’s not just happening now because we’re cutting trees for biomass — the destruction of the Acadian forest has taken place over centuries and the impacts are cumulative. Since European colonization almost every stand of old growth forest in the province has been either cut or burned and, not surprisingly, the kind of habitat of plants and animals that depend on these forests has almost disappeared, causing declines in other species. Many species are also vulnerable to what are called “edge effects,” which results when forests are fragmented by clearcutting and roads. Creatures that need large uninterrupted territory for a variety of reasons don’t do well.
Nova Scotia has experienced significant loss in species and since 2013 five more forest-dependent species have been added to the endangered list, many of them song birds, increasing the total to 14. Five others are listed as “threatened” and three are “vulnerable.” These are the ones that are classified at the federal level through COSEWIC and the Species at Risk Act and are supposed to receive legal protection. There are, however, scores of other forest-dependent flora and fauna that are not protected under legislation but are considered rare or potentially at risk. These are assessed using the Nova Scotia General Status of Wild Species classifications and that list is rather daunting.
Bob Bancroft, a retired DNR wildlife biologist, is opposed to the biomass plant because it promotes clearcutting, which he says is harmful to the forest, its inhabitants and ultimately to us. He says that given the intensity of our forest practices “and the indifference to species at risk in current forestry operations, it’s hardly a surprise that the list of threatened species continues to grow.”
Industrial forestry, on steroids
Daniel Pauly’s warnings about the “shifting baselines” can also be applied to trees. If you’ve never personally experienced or seen pictures or been told stories about what Nova Scotia’s forests used to be like — how old the trees got and the species that flourished — you might think that what you’re seeing out there now is completely normal.This is why historical data is really important. The DNR has been collecting data on the “age classes” and “species composition” of forest in this province since 1953. Field strip cruises … Continue reading
But in 2001 and then again in 2009, GPI Atlantic (an organization that I was the working for) had been tracking environmental health and quality indicators for the province and it reported a staggering decline in forest age diversity. Using inventory data collected by the DNR between 1958 and 2003 it reported that the forests were getting significantly younger: the percentage of young forest up to 20 years increased by more than 300 per cent and the 21- to 40-year-old age class increased by 103 per cent. During the same time period, the old forests were disappearing: the 61- to 80-year-old age class dropped by 65 per cent; the 81- to 100-year-old age class by 93 per cent; and the 101-plus-year-old age class by 97 per cent.All data originates from the GPI Forest Headline Indicators for Nova Scotia, 2008. Full disclosure: I co-authored that report with Ronald Colman. I also co-authored, with Minga O’Brien the GPI … Continue reading
We were also cutting a lot more too. In 1997 it peaked at roughly 70,000 ha, about 50 per cent higher than it had been 20 or 30 years earlier, and nearly all of it (98 per cent) was clearcut. But according to the National Forestry Database, since then the amount of land being harvested on an annual basis has been decreasing and in 2013 it amounted to about 29,000 ha, less than half of what it was in 1997, with 90 per cent of that still being clearcut.In 2010 the government committed to a target of reducing clearcutting to 50 percent of all harvesting – which received all party support as well as public support. Then in August of 2012 the Dexter … Continue reading Volumes cut have also declined, according to the Registry of Buyers, from 5.8 million cubic metres in 1998 (the first year of the Registry) to 3.6 million cubic metres in 2014.
I tried to find out what’s behind the decline in area and volume harvested, but after a month of trying the DRN has yet to reply. I also wanted to take a look at the most recent inventory data — data that used to be public — thinking that could provide some hints. But the DNR has not provided them either. The thing is, harvest and volume data without the inventory tells me roughly how much has been taken but nothing about what’s been left behind.
I’ll admit it made me wonder if these numbers to be believed? I mean, not reporting a harvest would be breaking the law, but it wouldn’t be the first time rules and regulations haven’t been followed. In fact, in 2013 the CBC reported that documents they obtained through the Freedom of Information Act found that between 2005 and 2012 only about 30 per cent of the harvest sites surveyed by the DNR have been in full compliance with the regulations and that normally the government “strives for 90 per cent.” The lack of compliance could in part be due to the sense that there wouldn’t be any consequences since in the eight years reported by the CBC, warnings decreased and charges were laid against violators only four times.CBC News. 2013. “Forestry regulation warnings, charges decrease in NS. June 3.
But Matt Miller at the EAC attributes the decline in harvest levels to market forces. “The downturn in the pulp mills and the economic crash in 2008-2009 meant that a lot of independent contractors got hit and this undermined the ability of the industry to tap into private woodlots,” he says. “The big challenge was the lack of capacity to go out and cut it.”
But you get the picture. The forests today are nothing like they were just 45 years earlier. In the 1950s they were still far from pristine. By then, decades of “high-grading” the larger trees had already changed the forest structure. The government’s first ever inventory reported, “the forests standing in 1958 are the end result of the building up and tearing down of trees over the centuries.”Nova Scotia Department of Lands and Forests. 1958. The Forest Resources of Nova Scotia. Prepared by L.S. Hawboldt and R.M. Bulmer, p. 30. Government documents had frequently issued warnings and recommendations — but they were largely unheeded.
In 1997 alarm bells were ringing within the DNR and the department issued similar warnings: “forest stands are being harvested when still immature,” that “softwood harvests have exceeded the sustainable supply,” and that “overharvesting is a potentially serious problem demanding immediate attention.”Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources. l997. Toward Sustainable Forestry, A Position Paper. Nova Scotia, pp. 1-8.
But this time the warnings were different.
This time the public listened.
And for a time it seemed like the DNR was listening back. In 2009 the DNR began a public consultation process that was to eventually lead toward a Natural Resources Strategy, and it showed clearly that the public was demanding a shift the status quo — from clearcutting and industrial forestry — to a way of doing forestry that also values wildlife, ecosystem services, culture, and aesthetics. Two opposing worldviews, and it was clear the side the public was on. The public had enough of the status quo.
Jonathan Porter, then woodlands manager at the Resolute pulp and paper mill in Brooklyn, was selected along with wildlife biologist Bob Bancroft and forest scientist Donna Crossland to participate in Phase 2 of the Natural Resources Strategy process. The three were asked to put together two reports for then-DNR Minister John MacDonell: one about biomass and one about clearcutting. According to Bancroft, “Porter did everything he could to block any progress for change… he did not collaborate as he was supposed to with respect to the panel mandate and the Voluntary Planning public consultation results, but rather strove to sabotage our efforts.” In the end, Porter wrote his own dissenting report, in support of clearcutting and biomass harvesting of whole trees.
But any fears within industry that it was losing its grip on the way forestry was done in this province were finally allayed in 2014, when the DNR hired Porter as the Executive Director of the department’s renewable resources branch.
“Choosing Porter as the head of renewable resources was very purposeful,” says Wade Prest, the former President of the NSWOOA and a woodlot owner himself. “It re-entrenched the industrial forestry model in this province.”Let’s face it, the membrane between government and industry everywhere is fairly permeable nowadays, but it is interesting to note how many former industry people are now in high places as per the … Continue reading A model that he says is part of the reason for the recent closures of value-added businesses that specialized in hardwood.
Within two years of Nova Scotia Power opening the biomass plant in Port Hawkesbury, two hardwood manufacturers— Finewood Flooring and Rivers Bend Wood Products — closed down. The media reported that both businesses were having difficulty getting a reliable supply of quality hardwood and attributed that to a decline in harvesting capacity, with fewer contractors working in the woods, fewer woodlot owners participating in the industry, and that hardwood sawlogs were not being sorted but instead being chipped for the biomass plant.
Beverley Ware at NSP says “the biomass may be comprised of different organic material depending on use and location, but the fuel used in the Port Hawkesbury plant is wood that has no other commercial use — generally hardwood that is crooked, knotty or diseased.”
Ware sent me a breakdown of what the biomass plant purchased in 2014.
Ware also said, that “in 2014, five to six per cent of material from NSP harvest jobs was softwood and hardwood sawable products that were then sold to buyers requiring higher quality products than NSP, and was not used as biomass fuel. We pay the most economical prices for our forest material. High quality sawlogs used in finished forest products are much more valuable than NSP is willing to pay for fuelwood plus we do not require high quality supply.”
Ware also pointed out that they audit “almost every single harvesting operation” and there were 140 audits in 2014, “to verify compliance, ensure proper reforestation practices and the sorting of sawable materials.” She says the DNR also preforms audits and “those records show compliance.”
Miller of the EAC says that either they’re sorting the logs or they aren’t. But he says he thinks hardwood sawlogs are getting chipped. “I saw an operation recently where there wasn’t a processor on site that would have been able to sort the logs, all they had was a chipper,” he says. As to why anyone would chip a log that is worth more intact, Miller thinks that it could happen if a company has a contract to supply the biomass boiler and they’re having a hard time meeting their volume commitments, with penalties attached to that. “The penalties could tip the balance.”
Prest sees it a little differently: “I’m sure that sometimes it happens because there are too few sawlogs to handle them otherwise and with places like Finewood Flooring and Rivers Bend going out of business, that makes even fewer places for them to go. That sort of thing just feeds on itself,” he says. “But that’s just one aspect of the problem.”
“The bigger issue is that whole forests are not being allowed to grow up into sawlogs.”
Prest says that when a young stand is clearcut there are no sawlogs in that stand and that because the practice of harvesting forests on “short rotations” — after 45-50 years — is so widespread and accepted in the industry it is possible to clearcut and chip an entire forest and not ever come across a sawlog.
“If we go too hard on it, our renewable resource isn’t really renewable anymore.” Prest tries to apply his vision to managing his 800 ha woodlot: “The most important thing is that I don’t harvest too much, I only harvest the amount that is truly a sustainable amount and then I have to determine what is the best use of what I’ve harvested for society.”
“Part of changing forestry in this province is to get out from under the burden of having to supply pulp mills with cheap fibre,” he says.
But that’s easier said than done when you have well-entrenched interests that don’t really care about a healthy forest because there’s plenty of demand for a degraded one.
What it boils down to is small businesses like Finewood Flooring and Rivers Bend were small, value added businesses, with little or no real influence. The pulp companies, on the other hand, are big, well-connected, and they genuflect at the altar of the free market that preaches less government and fewer regulations while at the same time benefiting from subsidies and rescue packages that amount to corporate welfare.
The gurus of neoliberalism or market-driven economic theory argue that for markets to work most efficiently they should be free to operate with little or no intervention by governments. Thing is, unless a government actively opposes this ideology the results are fairly predictable. Environmental laws and regulations typically constitute a cost for a corporation and free trade agreements make it easier for companies to shift their production or manufacturing to new jurisdictions where the environmental standards or enforcement are either lax or non-existent. So instead of raising the bar on environmental regulations, jurisdictions lower it to attract investment.
We enrich the corporations at the expense of our forests, and ultimately the future.
In 2015, Alan Eddy told the Chronicle Herald that NSP has an obligation to get wood fibre as cheaply as possible and the cheapest way to do that is to clearcut. “Do all Nova Scotians who pay power bills want to pay a higher power bill so that they can help us improve our forest?” he asked.
I would turn that around and ask him, “Why aren’t higher environmental standards just the cost of doing business in this province? And in whose interest does our government work?”
|↑1||NSP spokesperson Beverley Ware says that NSP is required to provide 350 GWh of “firm renewable” electricity, which comes from biomass.|
|↑2||According to Ware, there will be an increase in forestry-based biomass to 3.2 per cent. The other assumptions that were made in preparing for the Integrated Resource Plan include a 5 per cent decrease in load due to energy efficiency programs and a small contract with Minas Basin to produce biomass using elephant grass. Ware also said that, “stakeholders did not want PHP’s load included in planning because of a lack of clarity as to how long it would a customer. Also, PHP has a defined contract with NSP to be on a special rate called the Load Retention Tariff. That contract will expire in 2019 so NSP couldn’t assume status quo.”|
|↑3||The DNR defines whole-tree harvesting as a forest operation that removes the entire tree including the stem, branches, stump and roots.|
|↑4||These regulations are mandatory on all lands private or crown — and require one clump of 30 trees left standing for every eight hectares of harvest and a 20-metre buffer around all streams larger than 50 cm in diameter.|
|↑5||In 2009 the CBC reported the NSUARB ruled that it didn’t have the authority to approve an operational expense for an amount that would affect power rates for more than two decades. It also said it needed more information in order to properly judge the project’s merits.|
|↑6||According to Matt Miller at the EAC, the economic meltdown of 2008-2009 had a huge impact on the “contracting capacity” in Nova Scotia. While company contractors remained relatively stable, independent contractors, those who logged on private woodlots got hit hard and many left the business undermining the industry’s ability to tap into private woodlots.|
|↑7||Steffen, W., J. Rockstrom, and R. Costanza. 2011. “How Defining Planetary Boundaries can Transform Our Approach to Growth.” Solutions. Vol. 2, No. 3.|
|↑8||According to the DNR’s Registry of Buyers, in 2014 six per cent of the total provincial harvest went to energy generation: four per cent to Port Hawkesbury Biomass (PHB) and two per cent to Emera-owned Brooklyn Power. But energy generation isn’t the only demand for biomass, as Will Martin points out, but because “biomass” is not listed as a “forest product” in the DNR Registry of Buyers, it’s next to impossible to figure out how significant a forest product it is in terms of volume.|
|↑9||The Kyoto accounting system is already recognized as being deeply flawed because it was based on production-based accounting rather on consumption-based accounting, which means that countries are responsible for the emissions they produce within their own borders but are not responsible for the emissions that result from the manufacturing of goods produced offshore, but then shipped to their country. The New Economics Foundation in the UK refers to this as “carbon laundering,” and it argues that the only way to more accurately account for these displaced emissions is to measure domestic emissions on a per capita basis.|
|↑10||Dale Prest’s quote taken from “Clear Cutting Causing Long-term Declines in Forest Productivity? Implications of the Forestry Strategy.” NB Naturalist. (2014) http://www.naturenb.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/NB-Naturalist-Vol.41-No.1-Colour-August-29.pdf|
|↑11||In his article, Prest lists a number of “signs” of decreasing forest soil productivity: the forest is not growing as quickly as we think it should; plantations that were expected to be ready for harvest need additional time to produce desired volume; Balsam fir, which requires higher quality soils, might not be growing as vigorously; there’s an increase in species that thrive on low quality soils such as pin cherry, poplars and white birch.|
|↑12||In an interview with the CBC in 2012 Tom Clair, a research scientist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, said that Nova Scotia is the only part of the world where acidity has not improved with major cuts in acid rain emissions. For more on this read David Patriquin’s letter to Premier Stephen McNeil on behalf of the Woodens River Watershed Environmental Organization. http://wrweo.ca/wrweo2014/posts/2014/LetterWRWEOFeb12.pdf Patriquin is a retired Dalhousie University biologist.|
|↑13||Noseworthy’s thesis can be found here: http://watershed.for.unb.ca/files/Josh_Thesis.pdf|
|↑14||This is why historical data is really important. The DNR has been collecting data on the “age classes” and “species composition” of forest in this province since 1953. Field strip cruises were replaced with field sampling and photo interpretation. The more recent inventories, since 1985 were derived from aerial photographs and photo interpretation of roughly two million forest stands, which were then verified by field sampling. In addition to the GIS forest inventory, the DNR also maintains more than 2,000 Permanent Sample Plots (PSP) randomly placed across the province. This system, in place since l965, was according to the DNR “designed to track volume growth and mortality of the natural forest,” but in l994-l998 it, for the first time, used the PSP Plots for a forest inventory. Prior to that, the only publicly available PSP data measured periodic annual increments.|
Of course there are issues with any system of data collection—methodologies change and sometimes even what is measured changes, but overall collecting and reporting these data is crucial to understanding the status of the forests. Today the only data that appears to be publicly available is 1997-2003 (for GIS) and 1999-2003 (for PSP). Several attempts were made to access raw data from PSP or GIS inventories in order to update age class trends, but the DNR has not, to date, supplied these data.
|↑15||All data originates from the GPI Forest Headline Indicators for Nova Scotia, 2008. Full disclosure: I co-authored that report with Ronald Colman. I also co-authored, with Minga O’Brien the GPI Forest Accounts: Volume 2. A Way Forward: Case Studies in Sustainable Forestry. Note: In 1958 a 0-20 age classification did not exist in the inventory. The earliest data for this age class were reported in the 1965-1971 inventory and it was used to make this calculation.|
|↑16||In 2010 the government committed to a target of reducing clearcutting to 50 percent of all harvesting – which received all party support as well as public support. Then in August of 2012 the Dexter government released a new definition of clearcutting: “where less than 60 percent of the area is sufficiently occupied with trees taller than 1.3 m.” Forester Jamie Simpson has been quoted saying that in practical terms, this new definition means that “half of all cutting can leave a moonscape; the other half can leave a scattering of low-quality trees, none necessarily higher than 4 feet.”|
|↑17||CBC News. 2013. “Forestry regulation warnings, charges decrease in NS. June 3.|
|↑18||Nova Scotia Department of Lands and Forests. 1958. The Forest Resources of Nova Scotia. Prepared by L.S. Hawboldt and R.M. Bulmer, p. 30.|
|↑19||Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources. l997. Toward Sustainable Forestry, A Position Paper. Nova Scotia, pp. 1-8.|
|↑20||Let’s face it, the membrane between government and industry everywhere is fairly permeable nowadays, but it is interesting to note how many former industry people are now in high places as per the biomass issue. In addition to Jonathan Porter, Jonathan Kierstead (now Director of Forestry) was also formerly with Resolute, Allan Eddy, a former NSP employee is now Associate Deputy Minister of the DNR, and another former NSP employee Murray Coolican is now Deputy Minister of Energy and Business.|
Thanks for this hard work Linda.
It its study on renewables, the Union of Concerned Scientists stated clearly that the scientific evidence re the sustainability of forest-based biofuels lead them to the decision to exclude this source entirely from its study: http://www.ucsusa.org/clean-vehicles/better-biofuels/biomass-energy-resources#.V1SSJfkrLrc
I guess NS knows better.
Wow. Read this piece after today’s Examiner installment. Thanks very much ! Experts like Jaimie Simpson, Donna Crossland, Josh Noseworthy and Daniel Pauly so obviously being dissed and blatantly so. How cozy and smug of Resolute and NSP to plant Eddy & Coolican in our corrupt government. Great overview – excellent piece!
Thank you Linda for an article which is well researched,very readable and concise. In a perfect world
we would be paid to grow our trees to maturity.
Great topic, but half through the article, I find myself quite puzzled. I do understand the overall message, but without a similar level of expertise as you obviously obtained during the research, some paragraphs are very difficult to make sense of (In particular, this paragraph: “On the other hand, he says that conifers are “very thrifty” and able to grow in nutrient-poor soils. “So even though the soils are poorer, the overall impact of removing trees is less relative to rich soils supporting tolerant hardwoods.” I can’t figure out how it relates to the preceding paragraph.)
The preceding paragraph was about soil requirements of hardwoods. The one you’re referring to is about softwoods and their soil requirements. The paragraphs are related because they’re both about soil requirements, only one is about hardwoods and the other about softwoods. Hope that helps.
Fantastic article. Makes my continued subscription to the Examiner all the more worth it. Thanks.
Really important journalism here. Thanks for all your hard work.
Recall that MacNeil cancelled support for solar, claiming that we were already exceeding our green power goals. Putting aside the absurdity that we should only ever strive for the minimum of these goals, this article reveals the lie of how these goals are formulated and the interests they serve.
Thank you for the excellent research.
Thanks to Linda Pannozzo for putting this ugly picture together in one article so we can fully appreciate the severity of forest mismanagement in Nova Scotia. The green-washing around the sustainability of electricity produced at the Port Hawkesbury biomass plant is breath-taking. If Nova Scotia owned NSP we would be concentrating on energy efficiency and legitimate renewable energy, not razing the forest.
The decrease from 1998 to 2014 might correspond to Bowater closing, and the ‘great recession’ in the US, from which lumber mills may not have recovered to post crash levels.
Lovely. We get fake renewables that barely contribute to our electricity supply but make large woodlot owners and paper mills rich while destroying value-added uses for the wood and the environment.
How much diesel does it take to get a cubic meter of wood to the plant anyway?
What if all that subsidy money got spent on upgrading people’s homes or buying heat pumps? That could probably reduce electricity demand in this province by 3%. It is much easier to use less power than to generate more renewable energy.
News worth paying for.