A clearcut on private land in Colchester County. Photo: Joan Baxter

Last month Forest Nova Scotia, an industry group representing the most powerful shapers of forestry policy in this province, spearheaded a propaganda campaign against the Biodiversity Act, which the Liberal government of Iain Rankin had introduced on March 11, calling it legislation that would “preserve and protect Nova Scotia’s unique ecosystems, wild animals, plants, lakes and forests for future generations.” Not even two weeks later, the government caved in the face of the relentless ad campaign, and gutted the Bill. This, the second of two articles about the campaign to “Stop Bill 4,” looks at some of its supporters, government funding they receive, and the many questions that remain unanswered.  

We may never know exactly who orchestrated and paid for the intensive “Stop Bill 4” ad campaign that naturalist Cliff Seruntine calls a “campaign of fear.” It led to the gutting of Nova Scotia’s new Biodiversity Act, even before it had gone through the democratically established process in Law Amendments and the legislature.

One thing we do know is that Noel Sampson, of Public Affairs Atlantic, registered as a lobbyist with the province for the “Concerned Private Landowners Coalition” on March 26, three days after the province capitulated and announced the changes to the Biodiversity Act, and three days before it would go before Law Amendments.

The Nova Scotia lobbyist registry notes that Sampson also lobbies on behalf of “Coalition Member, Forest Nova Scotia.” According to the Registry, Forest Nova Scotia shares the same address — 430 Marney Road in Truro — with the “Concerned Private Landowners Coalition.”

The full-page ad in the Chronicle Herald that launched the Stop Bill 4 campaign on March 13 bore a different name — “Concerned Private Landowner [singular] Coalition”  —  from the one that Sampson is lobbying for. So does the Coalition’s Facebook page.

There is no record for the “Concerned Private Landowner [or Landowners] Coalition” on the provincial Registry of Joint Stocks.

According to Public Affairs Atlantic’s website, Sampson “is one of Atlantic Canada’s most experienced and accomplished communications consultants. Prior to entering the private sector, he served as an Atlantic Canadian advisor inside the Prime Minister’s Office.”

Public Affairs Atlantic describes itself as:

… a Halifax-based consultancy that provides senior communications counsel to corporations and governments throughout Atlantic Canada. The firm was founded by Noel Sampson and Jim Meek, who work with colleague Sasha Irving, to provide senior, strategic communications advice to decision-makers in the private and public sectors. The Public Affairs Atlantic team has decades of experience helping international, national and regional clients. We pride ourselves on collaborating directly and confidentially with clients to help them achieve their business goals.

As for what it does:

We help clients communicate effectively to get things done … Compel governments to act and stop them from acting. Generate media attention and avoid it. Prepare for a crisis and respond in a real one. Launch campaigns and derail opposing ones. Understand public opinion and change it. We think a lot and write enough. We plan ahead and pursue relentlessly.

“We provide discreet communications advice to business leaders and governments that gets results,” says the Public Affairs Atlantic website.

But of course the fact that Public Affairs Atlantic is now a registered lobbyist for the Coalition does not mean that it had anything to do with the Stop Bill 4 campaign. The Halifax Examiner has contacted Public Affairs Atlantic to ask if it did, and as of this writing has not had a reply.

As a result of the campaign, the original Biodiversity Act that was eventually passed late in the night of April 13 was a pale imitation of the original.

A dangerous precedent

But some background is in order.

The Biodiversity Act was introduced during the global climate crisis, fuelled in part by biodiversity loss that the Bill aimed to stem. Eviscerating such an important piece of legislation to quell public panic induced by a divisive and misleading advertising campaign sets a dangerous precedent, but those behind it don’t seem inclined to own up to that.

As reported in Part 1 of this series on the Stop Bill 4 campaign, neither Forestry Nova Scotia nor the Astroturf group it manufactured, the “Concerned Private Landowner Coalition,” replied to emailed questions about the campaign and who funded it.

Forestry people who have spoken with the Examiner allege that the ad campaign involves — directly or indirectly — the powerful industrial forestry lobby of large mills and contractors that has shaped forestry policy in Nova Scotia for decades.

And that means that Nova Scotians may well have helped fund the very ads that were bombarding them, and misinforming them about the Biodiversity Act, given how much public money has been lavished on those industrial players, some of it through sweet back door arrangements that involve the taxes we pay on our gas.

We’ll get to that.

The “voice of the forestry industry”

The most visible promoter of the campaign is Forest Nova Scotia, “the voice of the forestry industry” in the province that reportedly has 600 members, although as recently as 2017, the membership was said to be just 300.

Jeff Bishop of Forest Nova Scotia. Photo: Joan Baxter

In a CBC Information Morning interview on March 17, Forest Nova Scotia executive director Jeff Bishop acknowledged that his group had paid for a March 13 ad in the Chronicle Herald that purported to be from an entity called “Concerned Private Landowner Coalition,” which didn’t even exist.

However the same week, the Coalition (that didn’t exist) did come up with a Facebook page, a Twitter handle (53 followers), the acronym CPLC, and a website, replete with “Facebook ready graphics” and sample letters to MLAs and MLA contacts.

The Coalition Facebook page claims: “We represent farmers, woodlot owners, housing and cottage developers and thousands of proud Nova Scotia landowners.”

Except that it has only 606 followers, not quite “thousands.”

Who are the supporters of the Stop Bill 4 campaign?

While the Coalition website doesn’t say who sponsored the Stop Bill 4 campaign or where the divisive messaging about “Halifax activists” suddenly sprang from, it does “thank” its “supporters.”

Concerned Private Landowner Coalition website

The list of CPLC supporters is interesting because of who and how few they are, and how closely entwined/aligned some are with large players in the forestry industry.

  • Forest Nova Scotia
  • ARF Enterprises Ltd.
  • Dean Produce Co-Op
  • Christmas Tree Council of Nova Scotia
  • Nova Scotia Landowners and Forest Fibre Producers Association
  • Canadian Woodlands Forum
  • Snowmobilers Association of Nova Scotia
  • Cumberland Forestry Advisory Committee
  • Jack Brown Limited
  • Canadian Federation of Forest Owners

We’ll come back to Forest Nova Scotia. First a look at the other “supporters” of the Coalition and who they are affiliated with.

ARF Enterprises: According to the Registry of Joint Stocks, ARF Enterprises belongs to Alexander Ralf Feix, whose LinkedIn page identifies him as “Forest Operations planner at Northern Pulp Nova Scotia Corporation.” Northern Pulp has benefited from close to $130 million in financing and funding from the province since 2009, as well as $28.1 million from the Conservative federal government of Stephen Harper.

Dean Produce Co-operative: The president of the board of Dean Produce in Upper Musquodoboit is Todd Burgess, who has been “Forestry Outreach Coordinator” at Forest Nova Scotia since March 2020. Burgess was also reportedly in charge of dispensing the $1 million in provincial funding from the province in 2020 for the “private roads program.” The Examiner sent Burgess an email to confirm that, but as of this writing, has not had a response.

The Christmas Tree Council of Nova Scotia, an “umbrella organization, or coordinating body, for the three regionally based Christmas tree grower associations in Nova Scotia,” has had nearly $900,000 in provincial funding since 2016.

The Nova Scotia Landowners and Forest Fibre Association (NSLFFPA) says it is “an independent Association which provides forest management, certification and extension services for private woodlot owners in Eastern Nova Scotia.” While it began as an association of private woodlot owners that “struggled successfully” for the right to negotiate prices for wood, it “withdrew from its collective bargaining role in 2012 to enter into greater responsibilities with governments and industry.” A forestry source describes the Association as being “tight with industry.” In the last five years, NSLFFPA received more than a million dollars from the province.

The Canadian Woodlands Forum is an industry organization that shares office space with Forest Nova Scotia, as do four other organizations. The Forum provides “a network for forestry contractors, forest product companies, suppliers and ‘on-the-ground’ forestry personnel.” It says it has been assisting “A Contractor group comprised of Nova Scotia’s harvesting, trucking, silviculture and road construction companies” who “have been monitoring and assessing the dramatic impacts of the Northern Pulp mill closure.”

The Canadian Woodlands Forum “who we are” page shows how deeply entwined it is with major players in the Nova Scotia forestry industry. Forest Nova Scotia executive director Jeff Bishop and WestFor manager Marcus Zwicker are board members, as are Earle Miller of Great Northern Timber, Ian Johnstone of Wagner Forest Management Ltd, Cassie Turple of Ledwidge Lumber Ltd., Jason Casey of Elmsdale Lumber, Kevin Saunders of Port Hawkesbury Paper, and Jim Ketterling of J.D. Irving Limited.

Great Northern Timber pellet plant in Upper Musquodoboit. Photo: Joan Baxter

An email to the Canadian Woodlands Forum’s executive director on what kind of support it offered to the Stop Bill 4 campaign and why, was not answered. Between 2015 and 2020, the Canadian Woodlands Forum has received more than half a million dollars from the province.

The Snowmobilers Association of Nova Scotia (SANS) says it provides “leadership and support to our member snowmobile clubs so that they may enjoy quality recreational snowmobiling opportunities on a province-wide network of safe and well developed snowmobile trails.” How the Association believes the Biodiversity Act could have affected this, and why it supported the “Concerned Private Landowners Coalition” are questions that the Examiner sent to SANS. As of this writing, there has been no reply.

The Cumberland Forestry Advisory Committee was officially listed by the Municipality of the County of Cumberland in December 2020. Its co-chair, Jeff Black, joined a very ugly discussion on an industry Facebook page in March. The comments were about Jacob Fillmore, who was at that time on hunger strike in Halifax, seeking a moratorium on clearcutting in the province until the Lahey Report is fully implemented. Black wrote, “It will probably be tax dollars generated from the forest industry that will either pay for his health care or to bury him when the time comes!!”

Jack Brown Limited, listed as another supporter of the CPLC, is a trucking company belonging to members of the Brown family in Upper Musquodoboit.

The Canadian Federation of Forest Owners (CFFO) says it “promotes the economic and social interests of Canadian private forest land owners.” The CFFO is based in Ottawa, and one of its members is the Federation of Nova Scotia Woodland Owners, which received $655,847 from the province between 2015 and 2020. Corporate CFFO members include two very large and powerful forestry interests in Nova Scotia. One is J.D. Irving. The other, Wagner Forest Management, is a New Hampshire investment company that owns “2.4 million acres of forests throughout the Northeast region of the United States and Eastern Canada.”

Wagner Forest Management website

In 2006, Wagner purchased more than half a million acres of Nova Scotia for $155 million from Neenah Paper, about half of the land holdings that had once belonged to Scott Paper, which opened the pulp mill in Pictou County in 1967.[1]

A “large landowner” issues a threat

The All Terrain Vehicle Association of Nova Scotia (ATVANS) is not listed as a supporter of the Coalition, but its executive director Barry Barnet did send a notice “concerning Bill#4” to its members on March 19, which said:

The ATVANS officers prepared and sent a letter outlining our concerns and issues with this proposed legislation to the Minister of Lands and Forest [sic] and copied all Members of the legislative Assembly.

In summery [sic] we indicated that we support the protection of Biodiversity in Nova Scotia, however, we believe this can be achieved with existing legislative tools. We also indicated that we are concerned this bill may lead to landowners who have been generous partners by allowing us to use their land, may start to withdraw permission to limit their risk resulting from this bill.

Someone who was a member of ATVANS, and who wishes to remain anonymous, tells the Examiner that he supported the Biodiversity Act as it was introduced, and that he expressed his concerns to the ATVANS executive director about the stance the Association was taking:

As you are aware, the Nova Scotia Woodlot Owners and Operators Association, the largest group of private woodlot owners in the province, has come out in support of this legislation. For that reason, I believe you have read the tea leaves wrong if you think most woodlot owners will be denying your entry if the legislation passes. I think you have bought into a line which is being propagated by large industrial forestry interests who are primarily concerned with reducing impediments to unecological practices. I don’t think your organization can be in support of maintaining biological diversity and not supporting this legislation…. I know for sure if you continue on this track, I will not be allowing you on my land and for sure I won’t continue to be a member of ATVANS.

The executive director replied that ATVANS was concerned that if the Bill passed, there might be a loss of trail agreements for ATVs on private land, and that “one large landowner with nearly 450,000 acres of land and more than 400 kilometres of trails” on that land had “notified” ATVANS that if the Bill passed, they would gate their land and cancel the agreement for the use of those trails.

The person then answered with this:

Your email indicates that you are against the legislation because you are worried that your agreements with certain landowners are in jeopardy if you do not come out against the proposed legislation and have been informed by a single landowner with 450,000 acres that you will be locked out if the bill passes. In my opinion that is influence peddling, or blackmail, that should not contribute to your decisions. Surely we have evolved beyond those kinds of politics in Nova Scotia. I must also respectfully request the name of that landowner . . . Your organization’s actions on this proposed legislation will no doubt have been noted by the more numerous landowners who contribute to a larger portion of your Nova Scotia trails and many of those, including me, are supportive of the legislation.

ATVANS didn’t reply after that.

The Examiner emailed ATVANS executive director Barry Barnet with questions about the Association’s opposition to the Biodiversity Act. He replied that ATVANS had presented its official position at Law Amendments, and that since the government has now passed the Bill, he sees no need to comment further on it. As for the identity of the large landowner, Barnet said, “We have no intention of sharing private conversations, emails or letters on this or any matter.” He said ATVANS “did not contribute financially or logistically to any campaign for or against bill 4 as it was presented.”

Krista Fulton, who lives in Pictou, owns land in two counties, and she and her family are avid ATVers and snowmobilers, members of a couple of local associations. On March 15, just four days after the Biodiversity Act was introduced, Fulton received a group email from a representative of one of the snowmobile clubs. The email, which was forwarded from someone else, warned that this “act severely infringes on land owner rights.”

The email came with a template of a letter “that some are sending to their local MLAs,” and said, “We are looking for support from ATVANS and SANS with respect to this bill.” “If the act is allowed to move through the legislature in its current form, it may have an effect on the ability to use ATV and snowmobiles on private land.”

Fulton, who supported the Biodiversity Act as it was introduced, says she found the email “disgusting.”

“I am absolutely appalled that they used this type of platform for their objective of sending fear across the province. I’m completely appalled by it,” Fulton says.

She fired an email back, saying she found the message “extremely inappropriate.” “Since when is ATVANS and SANS part of a political agenda?” she wrote.

In the reply Fulton received was this explanation for the group email:

One of our largest Ns land owners Wagner asked us to send out. I did ask people to read I didn’t pressure anyone I will run by our president see how he feels.

The Examiner sent an email to Ian Johnstone, general manager of Wagner Forest NS, which purchased more than 500,000 acres of former Scott Paper land in the province in 2006, asking if the company sent a notification to the snowmobile association if it did not support the Stop Bill 4 campaign, it would deny access to trails, and whether Wagner provided any financial assistance to the campaign. On April 16, the Examiner sent another email asking for a response to the allegation. Johnstone has not replied.

The Examiner also asked Northern Timber Nova Scotia (an affiliate of Northern Pulp, and part of Paper Excellence Canada), which owns 420,000 acres in Nova Scotia, the same questions.

Spokesperson Sean Lewis replied that Paper Excellence:

… is pleased to provide public access to our lands in Nova Scotia and did not issue any notifications stating otherwise. We initially did have concerns with the proposed Biodiversity Act and expressed them during the consultation process. We did not contribute financially or otherwise to the campaign.

“Forestry industrial sites” or Forest Nova Scotia members?

And now we come to Forest Nova Scotia itself, whose executive director admitted to having placed the first Stop Bill 4 ad on March 13. Forest Nova Scotia says its members include “small and large private woodlot owners, Christmas tree growers, maple product producers, silviculture, trucking and harvesting contractors, energy producers, hardboard mills, pellet mills, sawmills, and pulp and paper mills.”

Forest Nova Scotia website

There is no list of members on the Forest NS website.

Instead, there is a list of “major forestry industrial sites” in the province, presumably sites of some of its “major” members, which includes corporations that have benefited over the years from a great deal of public largesse.

Below is a sample of the “industrial sites” on the Forest Nova Scotia website, and the provincial money that Public Accounts reports the companies on those “industrial sites” received between March 2015 and March 2020.

  • Northern Pulp Nova Scotia Ltd : more than $13.1 million (still owes NS $85 million, repayments deferred because of restructuring proceedings in BC Supreme Court)
  • Port Hawkesbury Paper: more than $28.5 million
  • J.D. Irving Ltd: $373,847
  • Ledwidge Lumber: $684,387
  • Elmsdale Lumber: $287,419
  • Harry Freeman and Son: $1,522,505
  • Scotsburn Lumber: $848,943
  • Great Northern Timber: $130,781
  • Taylor Lumber$231,528

Lots of largesse for the forestry industry

Of course this isn’t the only public largesse the major players in the forestry industry benefit from; they also get to harvest – and clearcut – on public land.

WestFor consortium allocations in 2017 and 2018

WestFor Management, which says it was “established in 2016 by the Provincial Government to increase the efficiency of forest management on Crown Land in Nova Scotia,” not only leases choice public woodland in the province, it also gets to manage it.

A bit of Nova Scotia history about the Crown land that WestFor manages may be useful here. This is Linda Pannozzo writing in the Examiner in 2018:

The land was previously owned by Liverpool pulp giant Resolute Forest Products (formerly Bowater Mersey). In 2011 the Nova Scotia government offered Resolute a $50 million “rescue package,” which apparently wasn’t enough to keep the company afloat because in 2012 the company announced it would shut down and sell its assets; the Nova Scotia government became the buyer.

That purchase was a move supported by the SMBSA [St. Margaret’s Bay Stewardship Association], which spearheaded the campaign to “Buy Back the Mersey Lands.” More than 30 groups joined in at the time with the vision of protecting ecologically sensitive areas, exploring options for a Community Forest, and expanding value-added production.

But it didn’t quite turn out that way. In 2014 the department announced it had divvied up half of the former Bowater lands to WestFor for a period of 10 years. WestFor was given access to cut a total of more than half a million hectares of crown land. In addition, near the end of its mandate the NDP government secretly allocated 125,000 tonnes per year from the new lands to Northern Pulp — effectively more than doubling the amount of wood allocated to the Pictou County pulp giant from crown lands.

The province took on $117.7 million in debt when it acquired the 555,000 acres of Bowater land in 2012, in addition to $118.4 million in pension and severance liabilities it assumed when it bought the Bowater shares for $1 from Resolute and partial owner, The Washington Post.

Pannozzo pointed out that even with the Bowater lands in public hands, it was as if the pulp mill was still “calling the shots,” partly because, she noted, the mill’s former woodlands manager Jonathan Porter was put in charge of managing the province’s Crown lands in the Department of Natural Resources. Porter held that position until this year, when he retired.

WestFor website 2021

In October 2020, the Examiner contacted the Department of Lands and Forestry and asked what stumpage rates WestFor members pay for harvesting on public land. DLF spokesperson Deborah Bayer replied that she would get back to me “shortly.” A follow-up email in early November asking when I might expect a reply was never answered.

On its website, WestFor makes this remarkable claim: “We assist 13 mills in their day to day operations while also assisting government, the people, and the forests.” [emphasis added, and in fact only 12 mills are shown to be members]

The Examiner asked Nina Newington, a member of Extinction Rebellion and one of those who was arrested just before Christmas last year for her participation in a blockade to try to stop WestFor from clearcutting moose habitat on Crown land in Digby County, for her thoughts on that claim by WestFor. Her response:

In a flight of fancy unencumbered by facts, WestFor claims to assist “the government, the people and the forests” of Nova Scotia. How? By having a goal of practicing “sustainable forestry that benefits future generations…”

Those of us arrested at WestFor’s behest for interfering with their “right” to clearcut endangered mainland moose habitat have a different take. If 1700 acres of clearcut stretching from the Tobeatic to the Silver River Wilderness Area is WestFor’s version of sustainable forestry, they had better not be left in charge of Crown land a minute longer. They might cut the other 1600 acres they have planned for the area.

Nina Newington (contributed)

Newington continues: “WestFor was the brainchild of a couple of the biggest mills, rushed into being in 2016 in order to limit options Lahey might have entertained for managing Crown land in Southwest Nova. Let’s make them extinct before they can do any more damage. In their place, we could double the size of the Medway Community Forest and use it as a model for real ecological forestry.”

Nine WestFor members appear on Forest Nova Scotia’s list of 17 “major industrial forestry sites.”

On March 23, WestFor’s general manager Marcus Zwicker and Forest Nova Scotia’s Jeff Bishop attended (virtually) the council meeting of the Municipality of the District of Lunenburg. Bishop “gave a presentation on behalf of the Concerned Private Landowner Coalition (CPCL) regarding concerns with the proposed Bill 4,” and “The CPLC requested that Municipal Council write a letter to the Premier and Minister outlining concerns with the proposed Bill 4.”

Mayor Carolyn Bolivar-Getson then “referred to a draft letter prepared by CAO Tom MacEwan,” expressing concerns about the Biodiversity Act. Council discussed the letter and then voted to allow the mayor to submit it as drafted to the Minister of Lands and Forestry, with copies to the Premier and MLAs. Only one councillor, Leitha Haysom, opposed the motion.

In the minutes of the Council meeting Zwicker is identified not as WestFor’s general manager, but a Forest Nova Scotia board member.

Who runs the forestry show in Nova Scotia?

The Forest Nova Scotia board, with 29 members, reads like the Who’s Who in Nova Scotia’s forestry industry.

A quick look at some Forest Nova Scotia directors suggests that a small group of corporations runs most things forestry in Nova Scotia:

Downey Thompson, who in 2017 celebrated “70 years of continuous employment” at Elmsdale Lumber, and is the past president of Forest Nova Scotia, is one of two members of his family on the Forest Nova Scotia board, together with his son, Stephen Thompson, woodlands manager at Elmsdale Lumber.

Richard Freeman is with Harry Freeman & Son Limited, one of the “oldest family-run sawmill businesses in North America,” which produces “approximately 100 million board feet of lumber and value added lumber products annually.”

Ian Johnstone is general manager at Wagner Forest Management, the US investment firm that bought half a million acres of Nova Scotia from Neenah Paper in 2006, which had been spun off from a company that bought the Pictou pulp mill from its original owner Scott. Johnstone was with Louisiana Pacific in Wisconsin from 2001 to 2007. Louisiana Pacific is the former owner of the Maibec CanExel facility in East River.

Cassie (Ledwidge) Turple, communications coordinator at Ledwidge Lumber, who frequently contributes opinion pieces to the Chronicle Herald defending status quo forestry practices (and also Northern Pulp, as she did here), is one of two people on the Forest Nova Scotia board from the same company, together with James Ledwidge, head of “woodlands / wood procurement” at Ledwidge Lumber.

Jeff Bishop, executive director of Forest Nova Scotia, is one of eight people on the Forestry Transition Team set up in January 2020 by former Premier Stephen McNeil. On March 30, a week after the provincial government caved to the Stop Bill 4 campaign spearheaded by Forest Nova Scotia and gutted the Biodiversity Act, Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change minister Keith Irving appointed Bishop to the “Round Table on Environment and Sustainable Prosperity,” which advises Premier Rankin and Irving on “protecting our environment.”

Darrin Carter runs Darrin Carter Logging, which his LinkedIn page says is, “primarily contracted by Northern Pulp. Been involved in mechanical wood harvesting in Nova Scotia since 1988.”

Debbie Reeves, vice president of the Forest Nova Scotia board, is with Murray A Reeves Forestry, the chair of “Large Private Non-Industrial Landowners of Nova Scotia,” and a member of the Forestry Transition Team appointed by former Premier Stephen McNeil.

Marcus Zwicker, general manager of WestFor Management, spent five years at JD Irving in Truro before joining WestFor, and calls himself a “private woodlot owner and Christmas tree grower.”

Stephen Marsters is with Timberland Holdings, a “Jodrey private investment holding company” owned by Scotia Investments Limited, which is also a member of the Canadian Woodlands Forum.

Ryan Cameron, Nova Scotia regional manager of JD Irving, based in Fredericton, has worked eight years with JD Irving.

Mark Baillie is general manager of Scotsburn Lumber, formerly part of the Northern Pulp / Paper Excellence corporate family, which has received close to $850,000 from the province in the last five years.

Rick Archibald is former president of Forest Nova Scotia and woodlands manager at Northern Pulp.

Jocelyn Taylor Archibald is officer manager at Taylor Lumber, and also chair of the board of the Maritime Lumber Bureau.

Kent Dykeman is the immediate past president of Forest NS, and former area forestry manager with Louisiana-Pacific Canada (now Maibec CanExel in East River), the second Forest NS board member who worked for that company.

Andrew Fedora, the actual president of the Forest NS board and former executive director of the Nova Scotia Woodland Owners, is also the “leader in sustainability and outreach” at Port Hawkesbury Paper.

This might be an opportune point to recall that in the last five years, the province has given more than $28.5 million to Fedora’s employer, Port Hawkesbury Paper.

Port Hawkesbury Paper mill. Photo: Joan Baxter

It’s also worthwhile recalling what former NDP MLA Howard Epstein had to say in his 2015 book “Rise again, Nova Scotia’s NDP on the rocks,” when it looked as if the Port Hawkesbury mill would close:

…the Premier’s [Darrell Dexter] office went into overdrive to save that plant. It paid for keeping it from deteriorating; it sought a buyer; it negotiated the sale.

In all, the NDP government spent $156 million on the mill in Port Hawkesbury, and it resumed operations only after Stern (Pacific West Commercial Corporation) bought it for $33 million, and that was only after the province had loaned Stern $40 million.

A sweet deal with our tax dollars

Over the last five years (March 2015 to March 2020), Forest Nova Scotia (and its predecessor Forest Products Association of Nova Scotia) received $2.8 million in government funding.

Figures have not yet been released for the most recent fiscal year, but they will likely show that Forest Nova Scotia received an extra injection of public money in 2020-21.

In February 2020, DLF announced that the Forestry Transition Team that then-Premier Stephen McNeil set up following the closure of the Northern Pulp mill had decided that:

$1 million will be provided through Forest Nova Scotia to deliver the private roads program. Private woodland owners with properties between 20 hectares and 20,000 hectares will be eligible to apply. The funding is additional to the annual $720,000 for private woodland roads across the province.

Unbeknownst to many Nova Scotians, Forest Nova Scotia runs a provincial program that is funded using their gas tax dollars.

It’s called the “Gas Tax Access Program” and, according to DLF spokesperson Brian Taylor, it began in 1967 (the same year the Scott pulp mill in Pictou County went into operation and clearcutting and herbicide spraying really took off in Nova Scotia.)

In an email to the Examiner, Taylor says that the private road program is administered “by Forest Nova Scotia on behalf of the Department [of Lands and Forestry]. In 2020, the program budget was $720,000.”

Writes Taylor:

All eligible private land owners can access program funding to complete road construction or road upgrades to their forest access roads. The program supports non-merchantable silviculture, resource extraction, Christmas tree lots, maple syrup operations, environmental and safety upgrades.

This program is in lieu of a gas tax rebate mechanism where the operators of industrial equipment or forest extraction equipment associated with the production of forest products were at one time eligible for a tax rebate or to use marked fuel. Funding is no longer associated with a gas tax but instead is a fixed funding amount.

As for how the program is monitored, Taylor says:

The Department conducts random field audits on the funded road projects reported by Forest Nova Scotia each year. Forest Nova Scotia inspects 100% of the road projects, before funding is released, to ensure they meet environmental and road construction standards. Each year Forest Nova Scotia provides the Department with a report that outlines such items as; where program funds were allocated; the distance of roads built or upgraded; and the number of applicants that received funding.

Taylor says that in 2020 the “Transition Fund [$50 million] was established to support the forestry transition after the closure of the Northern Pulp Kraft Mill,” adding:

It provided funding to various areas within the forestry industry of Nova Scotia. One of those areas included road construction on private land. Forest Nova Scotia administered the funds allocated to this program.

Last year (Feb 2020) an additional $1M was invested in this area. $750,000.00 of that initial $1,000,000.00 additional program funding was spent during the 2020/21 fiscal year. This additional funding will be rolled over to this year.

As for how the road program works, Taylor writes, “Most are smaller projects with a grant of $5000, except some larger landowners are eligible to apply for a $10,000 grant. Projects are selected on a first come, first serve basis until the yearly budget is spent.”

But there is much more than this to the story of the private road program that Forest Nova Scotia runs.

Taylor doesn’t mention, for example, that to qualify for the public funds that Forest Nova Scotia manages “on behalf of the provincial government,” anyone who is not a member of Forest Nova Scotia need not apply.

Yes, that’s right. If you want to access public funds for logging roads, generally the biggest single expense for woodlot owners doing any kind of forestry operation, you have to join Forest Nova Scotia.

Landowners who are not Forest NS members pay for their own logging roads. Photo: Joan Baxter.

From the Forest Nova Scotia website:

Applicants must be a Forest Nova Scotia member in good standing for a period of at least one year prior to applying for road assistance.

Applicants must be:

  • A woodlot owner or forest operator and must have produced wood fibre for the forest industry within the past five years, and is [sic] planning to produce wood fibre within the next five year period

OR

  • Actively engaged in silviculture activities for the purpose of sustainably managing fibre on their woodlot

OR

  • A maple products producer or Christmas tree/woodlot owner, who is actively developing their woodlot.

And:

Associate members of Forest Nova Scotia are not eligible for funding under this program.

An associate member of Forest Nova Scotia pays an annual membership fee of just $77.65, apparently not enough to make them eligible for the program.

An active member pays $143.15, and rates increase from there, all the way up to $11,347.14 for “pulp & paper,” and there are just two of those in Nova Scotia now, one of which — Northern Pulp — is in hibernation.

Forest NS lays out more requirements for the applicants:

A “Road Deposit” cheque for $231.75 + HST ($266.51), made payable to Forest Nova Scotia, must accompany your application.

If the application is approved, this money is non-refundable, even if a road is not constructed within the required two-year period. If the application is rejected, the $266.51 will be returned to the applicant.

Below that it states, “The road deposit is not refundable.”

For anyone who finds this arrangement a little, well, suspect, they are in good company.

The Auditor General weighs in

In 2018 when Nova Scotia’s then auditor general Michael Pickup took a close look at the access road construction program administered by Forest Nova Scotia — with $718,500 in 2016 and $720,00 in 2017 — he was not favourably impressed.

He singled out the program as problematic.

Given the key role that Forest Nova Scotia played in the Stop Bill 4 ad campaign to create panic among landowners and land users that the big bad government — spurred on by “Halifax activists” — would be taking their land and liberty right out from under them, it’s worth quoting extensively from the Auditor General report about the sweet arrangement that Forest Nova Scotia has with that same provincial government:

The Access Road Construction program budget was $720,000 in each year of the audit period. Ten percent of total funding ($72,000 per year) was paid to Forest Nova Scotia to administer the program. The administrator also charged an application fee of $266.51 (HST included) to each successful program applicant. Total revenue earned by Forest Nova Scotia in 2016 to administer the program was approximately $163,000, or 25 percent of total grant funding. Most grants (approximately 90 percent of those awarded in 2016) were to small woodlot owners, at the lowest grant amount of $1,500.

The expectations and accountability requirements between the Department of Natural Resources and Forest Nova Scotia for administering this program are not clear. Aside from the minimal guidelines available publicly on the Forest Nova Scotia website, there are no internal guidelines to govern the administration of the program. We identified several concerns which were not clearly addressed in policy.

  • One applicant submitted multiple invoices totalling $108,370 for the three years from 2004 to 2006. The annual grant available is only $2,500. The applicant carried forward the remaining balance as an eligible expense for reimbursement every year, which may continue until the full amount is paid. Based on this process, it will take over 30 years for the full amount to be recovered. It is not clear in the program guidelines that this is allowed, and it may not be known by all applicants.

  • For three projects, the grant amount exceeded the invoices submitted. In another case, the applicant invoiced themselves for the work performed. Program administrators said they determined a reasonable expense for each kilometer and use this to assess work completed by applicants, and do not require invoices. The Department does not have a specific approach for documenting these claims. It is another example of rules that not all applicants may be aware of when submitting applications and claims.

  • We noted a conflict of interest issue in which someone involved in administering the program was also a grant recipient. A conflict of interest policy should be developed.

Pickup recommended:

The Department of Natural Resources should establish a signed agreement with clear performance expectations, reporting requirements, and conflict of interest guidelines when using third-party administration for grant programs.

The Department of Natural Resources responded that it agreed with the recommendation and work was underway to implement it. There has been nothing reported to the public to show that this has been done.

Still, just two years later, the government handed Forest Nova Scotia an additional $1 million to disburse for access roads on private lands.

Critics of the arrangement tell the Examiner they would like to see the road program taken away from Forest Nova Scotia. One forestry professional questions if there would even be a Forest Nova Scotia without the program, and without the rental income it collects from other organizations that share its building, which the government also subsidizes.

He thinks the road program is, “A back door for government to support the mills by paying for their lobbyists.”

Despite all the financing it gets from government (some of it from the taxes Nova Scotians pay on their gas), Forest Nova Scotia seems to feel no obligation to answer questions that are in the public interest about the Stop Bill 4 campaign.

On April 8, the Halifax Examiner emailed questions to Jeff Bishop about the road program, and the financing of Stop Bill 4 campaign. To date, he has not replied. Nor has the administrator of the CPLC website, whom the Examiner emailed on March 28.

That means many questions remain unanswered.

Was public money used to fund a campaign to sabotage the Biodiversity Act, and the democratic process in Nova Scotia?

And if not, whose money paid for the campaign that communications professional Sarah Riley estimates cost hundreds of thousands of dollars? And who designed the divisive campaign?

It’s not obvious that we will ever know.

Unless, and here’s hoping, a whistleblower comes forth.

[1] This deal is outlined in my 2017 book “The Mill – fifty years of pulp and protest,” where I wrote, “The new owners of the half-million acres – 3.7 percent of Nova Scotia – the investors that Wagner represented, were unknown. This was investment for profit and the two entities holding the land for Wagner and its investors each had their own business model. Nova Star held properties that could be sold off as cottage lots and development properties. Atlantic Star was acquiring timberlands for clear cutting to feed the pulp mill; Wagner had signed an agreement to provide Neenah with fibre from its new timberland holdings.”

Joan Baxter

Joan Baxter is an award-winning Nova Scotian journalist and author of seven books, including "The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest." Website: www.joanbaxter.ca;...

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  1. Would you consider taking this amazing article out from behind the paywall early for “Earth Day”??? As a subscriber, I would love to share with others.

  2. What is it going to take to end the massive amount of corruption and collusion between the Nova Scotia government and the Nova Scotia forestry industry? Is it time to call in the feds (because our Provincial government is too much a part of all the ongoing corruption?) Would a federal audit reveal all the missing information and identify the criminal elements in our forestry industry and government? Do we need to involve the federal Justice Minister to get the bottom of this seedy, den of liars, thieves and organized criminals?

    When will Nova Scotians ever be able to feel like they aren’t being robbed on a daily basis? We deserve answers, and we deserve those who are clearly breaking the law to be held accountable.

  3. Great article Joan and great comments. I agree with all of them so far. The situation in Nova Scotia forests is appalling. And it looks like our new “environmental” premier is not going to fix it. Again, big money wins out.

  4. If ever there was an article that connected the dots, it is this one. I’m appreciative of all the digging that Baxter does; I’m appreciative of how she braids her work with that of Pannozzo. Where else can this be had! There are some disturbing aspects to a status quo in the forestry sector in NS- just as there are disturbing aspects to the status quo in the education sector.

    Looking forward to some deep dives into post-Freeman Panel dives into education from the staff at the Examiner. Freeman et al’s final report was entitled “Disrupting the Status Quo…” Question to answer- Has it been disrupted? If so, to what degree?

  5. Wow.. Just wow.! What an incredible roadmap to help us navigate through the hideously savaged landscape of our Nova Scotia crown land forests, and such a valuable exposé of the Cast of Deplorable Sock Puppets of the Forest Industry who have been orchestrating the devastation. I was already feeling disgusted by the whole mess, but now, well, how do you describe being “more than disgusted”? Revolted? Nauseated? Great work, Joan Baxter!

  6. Excellent and well done Joan Baxter. And thank you for providing these insights into that world. I think that we will be struggling against this yoke for some time. Only until governing bodies and citizenry move en masse philosophically toward stewardship and sustainability will the pillage subside and Acadian forests regrow. Governments haven’t the savvy knowledge experience or will to withstand some of these well funded avaricious scheming and rapacious entities that have only one goal in mind and that is to cut and process trees. Hell they aren’t even trees and eco-systems anymore… just fibre and tonnage.
    These governments need to be sued for negligence, culpability, and non-performance and be held responsible. How do we do that?
    These forestry companies can’t really be blamed as they are just doing what they exist for. Allowing them to exist and continue as is rests firmly in the hands of our governments and by association, us.

  7. Wow. Thanks for laying it all out in one place. I think at the core, we have a corrupted civil service in the Department of Lands and Forestry; they are the enablers, the manipulators. Not all of course, but key decision-makers and others play by their rules or leave, some have nervous breakdown or become otherwise disabled and then leave. The department keeps getting more positions, but we know nothing about the people hired, what they do; there are no annual reports available to the public.