A clearcut in Cumberland County. Photo: Joan Baxter

Which rules are going to apply to hundreds of harvests approved on Crown land during the 2.5 years since the Lahey Report came out: the Interim Guide in place today or new rules poised to be introduced that will force companies to take less wood and leave more trees behind to improve biodiversity?

That’s an important question to which representatives from the Department of Lands & Forestry had no clear answer during a Public Accounts Committee meeting held yesterday. Amazing, really…a signal this is a file where new direction is coming but has not yet taken hold. 

The meeting was scheduled to discuss progress on species-at-risk recommendations from the auditor general five years ago and the Lahey Report received in August 2018.

NDP Forestry critic Lisa Roberts questioned what rules industry will play under by once new harvesting rules are finally implemented. She read from a letter written to former Forestry Minister Derek Mombourquette last November signed by half the members on the minister’s Advisory Committee on the Lahey Report. 

The letter asked for a moratorium on clearcutting on Crown land until recommendations from Lahey are implemented. It expressed concern that “harvest plans that specify heavy cutting are being submitted and approved at a rapid pace.”

Roberts quoted from the letter the NDP obtained through a Freedom of Information request:

 “At the minister’s Advisory Committee meeting on October 19, 2020 Marcus Zwicker reported that mills in the WestFor consortium in southwest Nova Scotia currently have five years of harvest plan approvals in place. This means the practices that Lahey rejected will remain the dominant treatment on Crown Lands for many years after the government accepted the recommendation of Lahey’s Independent Review of Forest Practices in NS.”

Under questioning , Gerald Post, the acting executive director of Renewable Resources for Lands & Forestry, confirmed that some harvest plans approved by the department in 2018 have yet to take place in the forest. There can be lag, said Post, due to roadbuilding and other factors. That prompted a followup question from Roberts:

“So currently approved harvests that may happen in 2021 or in 2022 — will they be meeting the new standard of the Forest Management Guide [also known as the Silviculture Guide to the Ecological Matrix] or will they only be meeting the Interim Guidelines, or, the standards that were in place when those harvests were initially approved if they were approved before 2018?” 

“Anything approved since 2018 when the Interim Retention Guide was introduced is planned according to that Interim directive,” replied Post. “That is very much in keeping with what the draft of the new Silvicultural Guide says but until that is finalized and put into place, I can’t speak to whether it is fully aligned with the Interim Guide.”

Roberts challenged that statement. Here’s why. (Please bear with our Reader’s Digest version of the technical forest-speak). The old rules prior to the Lahey recommendations allowed forestry companies to clearcut Crown Lands leaving behind only 5% of the trees. The Interim Guide until Lahey’s ecological forestry model gets implemented requires 10-30% of the trees be left behind. The future rules in the Silviculture Guide (now in its third draft) propose leaving behind 20-60% of trees on a portion of Crown lands Lahey calls the “ecological matrix.” Those forests would see “a lighter touch” or far less clearcutting applied to most of the area while still allowing heavy cutting on a much smaller amount of Crown land, depending on the species of the trees in the stand and the soils. 

“Again, because the Interim Guide falls short of ecological forestry, once the new Silvicultural Guide is approved, will a harvest that takes place in 2022 follow the new Guide standards?” asked Roberts.

“Harvests that are planned with the Silviculture Guide to the Ecological Matrix will be conducted according to the directives in that Guide,” said Post.

The reply doesn’t directly answer the question Roberts posed. However it certainly sounds as if forestry companies that had harvesting plans approved prior to new rules in the Silviculture Guide being introduced will be able to continue clearcutting under the less stringent rules in place when their applications were submitted. 

“No grandfathering of the old, discredited rules around clearcutting will be acceptable to the public,” said Ray Plourde, the wilderness coordinator for the Ecology Action Centre. “As soon as the long-awaited Lahey regulations are implemented on the ground, that’s the moment the industry needs to adopt the new regulations. Anything else and there will be a nuclear explosion.”

The Halifax Examiner did ask the Department of Lands & Forestry for further clarification about which rules would apply to harvests approved but not yet carried out. Deborah Bayer, the Lands & Forestry senior communications officer, said the department was unable to respond by end of day yesterday but might have further clarification later today. 

Jonathan Porter resigns 

Meanwhile, no date has been set for when new regulations governing harvesting on crown lands will be introduced. “Early this year” was the vague answer given by both Post and the newly appointed deputy minister Paul LaFleche. 

Post has temporarily assumed the role that has been filled for many years by Jonathan Porter, a former Bowater Mersey executive before being hired by Lands & Forestry. A spokesperson for the department confirms Porter will be retiring at the end of this month. 

The shake-up in senior management may be a strong signal that Iain Rankin, a previous minister of Natural Resources and now the premier, is serious about making good on a promise in Tuesday’s throne speech to “accelerate the implementation of the Lahey recommendations.” 

The NDP says 10 years is too long to wait for change which began with extensive public consultation in 2010 and the release of that party’s Natural Resources Strategy back in 2011. 

“In the fall of last year, our caucus wrote to Minister Mombourquette to ask for a pause on clearcutting on Crown land until significant elements of the Lahey Report were completed. The lack of action on this is disappointing,” said Roberts. The NDP caucus renewed its call for a moratorium after the Public Accounts meeting yesterday. 

Senior managers for Lands & Forestry stressed “dramatic” improvements in clearcutting have already been recorded since introducing the Interim Guide at the end of 2018. Post said by the end of 2019, less than 1,000 hectares of Crown land had been clearcut where only 5% of trees were left behind. That compares favourably with 7,200 hectares clearcut with only 5% of trees retained in 2018, before the Interim Guide. Post said the number of harvests on Crown land where 20% and 30 % of trees have been left after harvest has increased every year. None of that gives Lisa Roberts much comfort.

“The question is what is the new Guide going to apply to and how is it going to be monitored on the ground to ensure that the intent of the Guide is actually being accomplished?,” said Roberts.


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

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  1. Thanks, Jennifer Henderson, for covering this, and thanks to MLA Lisa Roberts for being so dogged in her questioning and pursuit of answers. What a mess of obfuscation on the part of government and bureaucrats! Its about time we had some clear answers and timelines.