Lands and Forestry Minister Iain Rankin and Lands and Forestry Deputy Minister Julie Towers. Photo: Jennifer Henderson

The McNeil government is promising less clearcutting on crown lands through new “interim” harvesting guidelines introduced yesterday in response to a comprehensive report on forestry practices prepared by University of King’s College president Bill Lahey last August.

It’s unclear how much the controversial practice will be reduced until after permanent guidelines are introduced by the end of next year. The report prescribed a more ecological approach to managing the province’s forests, even if change leads to a 10 to 20 per cent reduction in wood supply, which Lahey estimated.

Lands and Forestry Minister Iain Rankin accompanied by deputy Minister Julie Towers told a news conference the government accepts “the spirit and intent” of all 45 recommendations in the Lahey report. Rankin said many will take time to implement and others “may not be implemented exactly as they are proposed.”

One example of that wiggle room is government’s decision to allow companies to spray herbicide on crown land (on acreages identified for intensive production) but not make taxpayers pay for the spray, a two-step Lahey had recommended. Another example of “not exactly as proposed” is the government’s decision to ban whole-tree harvesting as a matter of policy but not commit to enshrine it in law. That said, Minister Rankin was insistent that accepting the Lahey report “will result in changes to forestry practices and reductions in clearcutting on public lands.”

More than 80 per cent of the province’s forests are harvested using a handful of clearcutting methods. Crown lands account for about 30 per cent of the total acreage and that’s where the province is beginning to make changes.

The interim guidelines published on the Lands and Forestry website are highly technical: they apply to just two types of clearcuts known as “Overstory Removal” and “Seed Tree Harvest.” These will immediately require companies to leave behind 10 to 30 per cent of the trees after harvesting carried out on Crown land. Previously, companies were only required to leave a buffer around waterways and a few clumps to encourage wildlife. The new guidelines, however modest, “mean fewer trees will be taken during clearcutting on all crown land,” said deputy minister Julie Towers.

“I don’t think this response is adequate; it seems we have waited a long time for this small change,” said Lisa Roberts, NDP critic for Lands and Forestry. “What I would have liked to have seen is a greater emphasis  on how are we going to support restorative forestry both on crown lands and private woodlots. We have Nova Scotians who might buy a woodlot that has come on the market after it has been clearcut. Where is the support for doing restorative forestry so we can start to grow the mixed-age stands that have been lost over a generation?”

For now, the government has a hands-off policy toward private landowners. Rankin said some government funding for replanting by private woodlot owners may be considered. Re-defining the terms around what and when trees can be cut will in turn affect decisions around silviculture, which Lahey concluded must be beefed up on both crown and private lands to improve forest productivity, which lags behind Maine.

Rankin said these revisions to the Forest Management Guide should be completed by the end of 2019, ditto for a peer review of how the Lands and Forestry Department interprets data around fires and disease to determine how frequently  stands can be chopped down for pulp or timber.

Rankin said these detailed and more ecologically sensitive changes will do more to improve forest health “on the ground” than setting an “arbitrary” target to reduce clearcutting. (The previous NDP government had set a target in 2011 of reducing clearcutting by 50 per cent that the Liberals abandoned after getting elected). Rankin said changes will reduce clearcutting on crown Land but he “does not accept or agree” with Bill Lahey’s estimate that a 10 to 20 per cent reduction in wood supply will result. Rankin believes “partial cuts may lead to more higher value wood becoming available” and that private woodlot owners may compensate for the drop on crown lands.

Ray Plourde of the Ecology Action Centre thinks it’s “logical” that if clearcutting is reduced, the wood supply will also drop. That said, he believes Minister Rankin’s heart is in the right place.

“I think they get it and they are trying to move in the right direction, as far as ecological forestry on Crown land goes,” says Plourde. “There seems a recognition we have been allowing large forestry companies on crown and private land to convert our mixed Acadian forests into softwood monocultures. The devil will be in the details and in the implementation.”

While changes work through the bureaucracy for another year, no new long term licences for Crown land will be granted. Companies with licences get a one-year extension but must comply with the interim rules around clearcutting. No representatives from forestry companies were present at the news conference in Halifax.

“I think if the government is true to their word today, this will result in a fewer trees being cut on crown land,” said Tory Rushton, the forestry critic for the Progressive Conservatives. “Speaking with some private landowners, I think we will see more harvest on private lands because of holding back licenses for crown lands.  I think we are going to see change within forestry.”

When asked, Minister Rankin said the government intends to adopt  (within the next 12 months) a key recommendation that would take the government away from  the daily management of crown lands while still retaining  control and oversight. The Lands and Forestry Department currently accepts or rejects every harvest plan. The new governance model Lahey recommended would see a company seeking a licence on crown land be accountable for its forestry practices before a panel similar to a Class 2 environmental assessment. If a multi-year licence is issued, it would then be the company’s responsibility to determine how those harvests occur — freeing Department staff to enforce the rules and focus on issues such as research and climate change.

The government response to Lahey includes “exploring opportunities for small-scale wood energy projects” to allow low quality wood to be used for district heating. The Ecology Action Centre’s Ray Plourde says he can support using sawdust and wood chips for local heat but on one condition only.

“That the government stop the high volume, very inefficient biomass electricity generators at Port Hawkesbury, near Liverpool, and the one attached to Northern Pulp and to ban biomass exports (pellets) to Europe. That has to end.”

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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