A conservation biologist says the provincial government’s decision to use a lesser certification for woodland is like a student changing schools because he can’t pass an exam.
On Monday the province announced it would discontinue Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification for the Medway District in western Nova Scotia in favour of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) certificate, which it also holds.
The Medway District was one of three parcels that made up the Bowater Mersey land purchased by the Dexter government in 2012 for $23.7 million following the Queens County mill’s closure.
“It’s home to tons of habitat for species at risk,” said Matt Miller, forestry co-ordinator for the Ecology Action Centre. “Some of the oldest forest (and) some of the most intact forest that was purchased from Bowater is in that Medway district.”
Miller, who called the Medway District “the crown jewel” of the land purchase, said dropping FSC certification is a big step backwards. Despite suggestions from the government in its news release that the move was about reducing duplication, Miller said the Liberals are promoting a lesser standard.
“They’ve downgraded to a weaker certification system at a time when the public expectation is that our Crown lands are going to be managed at the highest standard possible.” The certification allows for more voices and public consultation as management plans are developed, something Miller fears will now be lost.
FSC was born out of concerns about deforestation of the rain forest, at a time when producers of paper and lumber products were under pressure to improve practices, said Miller. The certification became an independent stamp of approval companies could point to as evidence they were doing everything they could to be sustainable.
SFI, on the other hand, was born out of the American Pulp and Paper Association, said Miller, as a response to FSC, which he called the “highest environmental bar to meet.”
“Companies found it difficult to meet that bar but they still wanted some type of certification system.”
Not only is the move a setback for management of the forests, it also flies in the face of what the government has been saying for more than a year, he said.
The former natural resources minister, Zach Churchill, referred to FSC in interviews as the gold standard and said the government was working toward expansion of the certification following an independent report on Crown land from the Mersey Woodlands Advisory Committee that called for just such a move.
Chris Miller, a conservation biologist with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (no relation to Matt Miller), said he was shocked by the announcement, which “was basically an admission by the Nova Scotia government they could not achieve and sustain that level of certification.”
It matters, he said, because of the wide-reaching importance of the forests to the province.
Part of certification process is an annual audit reviewing the certificate holder’s ability to live up to the standards such as environmental guidelines for the amount of harvesting allowed, the minimum requirement for protection of species at risk and bans on herbicide spraying.
It’s Miller’s belief the move is really about the government not being able to pass the audit, which has been in the works since last autumn and has yet to be released. If that is the case, officials should just say so, he said. Miller worries that if the government abandons the audit, its findings might never see the light of day.
But Natural Resources Minister Lloyd Hines said he has no idea what the audit, which is conducted by FSC, says and said the department’s decision has nothing to do with that. Despite the change, Hines said the government would continue to manage the land as it would if it were still pursuing FSC certification and the public would continue to have a voice.
“We have a plan in place; that’s not going to be altered. So there’s no reason for anybody to think that there’s any lessening of the standard whatsoever in terms of those particular lands,” he said.
“The forestry is of great interest and concern to all Nova Scotians, as it should be . . . I don’t see that being diminished.”
There was no lobby by industry to make the change, said Hines, and the government has been looking to do it since buying the land from Bowater.
“We came to the conclusion that it is an unnecessary duplication that comes with a cost,” he said.
The minister disputed the suggestion SFI isn’t a strong certificate.
“I guess beauty is eye of the beholder because that’s not a widely held position (based on) the people I’m talking to. The SFI is more widely used; it covers 100 per cent of the Crown land in the province, where as only 30 per cent was for the other certification.”
The Medway District is one of two big areas in the province FSC certified: the other is in the east of the province and allocated to Port Hawkesbury Paper. The contrast between the two is like night and day, said Chris Miller.
“[Port Hawkesbury Paper has] done a really good job and they’ve demonstrated that you can maintain and hold this FSC certificate over the long term. The Nova Scotia government has failed to do that [with the Medway land].”
The higher standard is intended to give the public more confidence that the forests are being managed properly, with attention to sustainability and consideration for the environment, said Miller.
“FSC is tough, and that’s the whole point,” he said. “I think the government should change course on it; I don’t think they should walk away from FSC.”