Northern Pulp clearcut next to Square Lake. Photo: Linda Pannozzo

Despite what the Nova Scotia government has said in response to concerns raised over clearcutting, the most recent figures released from the National Forestry Database (NFD) indicate that in 2015, both the overall harvest and the proportion of trees removed by clearcutting continued to increase.

And ironically, the national body used data supplied by the province for its assessment.

The National Forestry Database shows that out of a total of 34,777 hectares harvested in 2015, an estimated 30,937 hectares of publicly and privately owned woodland, or 88.95 per cent, were clearcut. That’s the highest combined total in five years. The figure is considered an “estimate” because of uncertainty related to cutting on private woodlots.

TOTAL CLEARCUTS: (Crown & Private lands combined)

  2015: 30,937 of 34,777  hectares —   89%

2014: 28,350 of  32,187  hectares —   88%

Source: National Forestry Database

Bruce Nunn is the communications director for the NS Department of Natural Resources. After checking with foresters and senior officials, Nunn says the Department agrees the total amount of land harvested and clearcut in 2015 increased very slightly over 2014. But the Department disputes the size of the increase reported by the National Forestry Database, showing no change in the percentage for the Province as a whole.

TOTAL CLEARCUTS: (of all harvested crown & private lands combined)

 2015: 28,847 of 34,777  hectares  — 83%

2014: 26,670 of 32,187  hectares  —  83 %

        Source:  NS Department of Natural Resources

The difference in interpretations of the same data (again, compiled by the province) is even more startling when you look at 2015 statistics for clearcutting on Crown Lands, a major source of public controversy.

According to the national statistics, the area of crown land clearcut increased 18 per cent in 2015 over the previous year. More Crown land in Nova Scotia was clearcut than at any time in the last 25 years. But according to the Province, clearcutting on Crown lands is continuing to decrease. Compare the following sets of statistics.

CLEARCUTTING ON NS CROWN LAND                        

  2015: 9,493 of 11,342 harvested hectares —   89%

  2014: 8,035 of 9,364 harvested hectares — 88%

Source: National Forestry Database


2015: 7,593 of 11,342 harvested hectares — 67%

2014: 6,679 of 9,364 harvested hectares — 71%

1990: 4,800 (est.) of harvested 4,904 hectares — 98%

Source: NS Department of Natural Resources            

Confused? “Can’t see the forest for the trees”?

The problem lies in how a clearcut is defined. The definition used by the National Forestry Database is called even-aged management. It includes first and second-stage clearcuts, “shelterwood,” and “seed tree” — a clearcut that leaves behind a few standing trees.

Shelterwood is a form of cutting that usually leaves behind 50 per cent or more of the biggest, oldest trees to provide shade and to regenerate a single species (e.g. red spruce). Once that species is established, the remaining mature trees are cut down.

The National Forestry Base considers this “a two-stage clearcut” (in effect, mature trees left standing will inevitably be cut). Bruce Nunn of the provincial Department of Natural Resources says the province does not view it this way. Instead, it considers shelterwood as “similar to a selection cut,” and excludes it when calculating clearcuts. In 2015, shelterwood accounted for 1,900 hectares that were not included in the province’s lower clearcut percentages — for both crown land and the province as a whole.

Usually, there’s about a 15-month gap between the time statistics are collected by the province and when they’re publicly reported by the National Forestry Database. During that “gap” last August, the province announced that its previous policy of reducing clearcutting by 50 per cent was no longer relevant.

That goal had been set after a decade of public consultation. Instead, the Department of Natural Resources now says it will use “tools that ensure all harvest treatments are aligned with the nature-based requirements of Nova Scotia’s Lands.” One can only imagine the myriad ways in which that phrase could be parsed.

The actual definition of what a clearcut is in Nova Scotia will remain a vague and moving target, often at odds with the large swaths of denuded landscape seen from an airplane window or in satellite images.

“What the numbers show is that despite the Nova Scotia government’s longstanding public commitment to reduce clearcutting to no more than 50 per cent, and despite repeated assurances from the McNeil government that they were on track to meet those commitments, the Department of Natural Resources never even tried to meet them,” argues Ray Plourde, the forestry and wilderness coordinator with the Ecology Action Centre.  “And they absolutely refuse to accept any meaningful reforms to damaging forestry practices, especially clearcutting.”

Clearcutting also increased on land owned by timber or pulp companies and private woodlot owners in 2015. On private lands, it increased from 20,315 hectares in 2014 to 21,444 hectares in 2015, up 5.5 per cent.


2015: 21,444 (est.) of harvested 23,435 total (est.) — 91.5%

2014: 20,315 (est.) of harvested 22,823 total (est.) — 89%

2013: 20,496 (est.) of harvested 22,345 total (est.) — 91.7%

1990: 34,446 (est.) of harvested  34,994 total (est.) — 98.4%

Source: National Forestry Database

Forest Nova Scotia represents sawmills, paper companies, and some private woodlot owners. Its executive director, Jeff Bishop, says he is “cautious” about relying on the National Forestry Database numbers. “They use a conversion from the volume of wood to the area harvested based solely on the assumption of clearcutting,” said Bishop in an email. “They do this because Nova Scotia tracks only volume…and requires industry to report volume (and not the area or the harvest method). From previous work with our members on this data a few years ago, it’s not what I consider accurate to what’s happening on the ground.”

The 2015 figures continue to show a growing percentage of timber coming from crown lands. In 2015, the percentage of wood from crown lands grew from a quarter to nearly one-third of the total area cut (11,342 hectares of 34,777 total).

“This has to do with the change in ownership of the Bowater land,” explains DNR’s Nunn. “Bowater land use to be under the ‘Industrial’ category (meaning privately owned land managed by a forestry industry company), but since the province bought the land, it is now under the “Crown” category. The data shows that the increase in Crown harvest coincides with a decrease in Industrial harvest. The total amount of clearcutting across these two categories (Crown and Industrial) has remained fairly stable.”

Nunn says that since 2013, the province has required companies operating on Crown lands to conduct pre-treatment assessments and then to use the Forest Management Guides (which are based on the Forest Ecosystem Classification and on Tree Characteristics) to develop a harvest prescription.

The volume of wood harvested in Nova Scotia also increased slightly in 2015. The Registry of Wood Buyers reported 3.7 million cubic metres in 2015, up from 3.6 million cubic metres sold in 2014.

“The upward spike in clearcutting on crown land is the effect of the overly-generous WestFor deal on the western crown lands,” suggests Ecology Action Centre’s Raymond Plourde, although NFD data do not provide information that would either back up or refute such a claim.

Thirteen sawmills and companies that make up the WestFor consortium are working with temporary allocations of 300,000 green tonnes on crown land, which was once leased to Bowater Mersey in southwestern Nova Scotia. The companies hope the government will confirm 10-year licences for them.

Meanwhile, Northern Pulp in Pictou County has already received a 10-year lease for 125,000 green tonnes. Natural Resources Minister Lloyd Hines has said he will wait for the 2016 harvesting numbers before signing long-term leases for the half million acres of crown land. Those numbers will likely appear in 2018, after the next provincial election.

When it comes to measuring how well the Nova Scotia government is managing our forests, though, the most recent clearcutting figures will likely add fuel to the fire.

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

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  1. Premier Dexter and the NDP were the ones who orchestrated the Bowater buyback to save it from European buyers had their eyes on the lands. They would have clear cut it asap.. Now the McNeil Liberals are doing the same thing!

  2. I have found NO scientific literature that supports the kind of tree harvesting that is occurring in Nova Scotia. There is no mention of the life-giving cycles that go on in forests – the nitrogen, carbon and hydrological cycles, the fungi, bacteria and soil organisms that contribute the nutrients that go into making a healthy forest, not to mention old trees, that sequester 3 times more carbon than a comparable stand of young trees. Trees and forests do not fit in with government’s four year mandates and it is high time the powers that be set in motion a viable, long-term plan for wood harvest in this province or there won’t be any forests left to cut.

  3. Dexter and the NDP were the ones who orchestrated the Bowater buyback racket with full intention of the province (DNR) managing/selling the future harvests, so it really doesn’t matter who has the current reins of ‘leadership’. It’s clear that the NS government has had ZERO concern for environmental regulation and intentional future growth and development for our forests. I invite the excellent journalists at HFXExaminer to truly go deep and investigate the pending Westfor management deal. It is a borderline criminal agreement which should be exposed for the rest of Canada alongside Catherine McKenna and office.

  4. This is the reason I am NOT voting Liberal in the next provincial election. I don’t care if the truck drivers lose their jobs or not That is not a good reason to kill our forests and our animals. We can retrain these people when we say enough is enough. No wonder we have wildlife living in our gardens they have no where to go. I am absolutely sick of this!