They were heady days.
It was spring of 2008 and citizens started gathering in droves in community halls to talk about why the natural world mattered to them. A few months earlier Conservative Natural Resources Minister David Morse announced that Voluntary Planning would lead a year of independent public consultations on the province’s minerals, forests, provincial parks, and biodiversity. It was to be phase one of a three-part process to develop a new Natural Resources Strategy for the department. “This first phase is crucial. It will identify the foundation on which we can build a better plan,” Morse said at the time. For the first time the advice of citizens was going to shape resource policy in the province.
Well, that’s what we were told and at the time the sense of possibility and excitement was palpable. I remember the meeting I attended at the Blockhouse Fire Hall on the south shore about a half-hour drive from my home. It was held one evening in May, middle of the week. The hall was filled to capacity, standing room only. It was hot. And when the committee asked its first question, “What is your vision for forests, biodiversity, minerals, and parks in NS?” it was like a rusty spigot had finally been pried loose. And it gushed. I felt buoyed by the spirited crowd and the visions being articulated — it was gritty, sometimes maddening, and in many ways profound. My heart pounded. It felt like democracy in action.
But about a month ago when the DNR released its progress report, on the fifth anniversary of the 2011 Natural Resource Strategy, any hope that a new vision had been put into practice was dashed. Instead of reporting on its progress toward meeting the citizen-led targets, including a significant reduction in clearcutting and prohibiting whole tree biomass harvesting, it has instead abandoned them.
Government documents have been warning about deteriorating forest conditions in Nova Scotia since 1958 — the year the first provincial forest inventory was published by the Department of Lands and Forests. “High-grading” the larger trees to meet the demand for sawlogs had not only changed the forest structure but had “nearly exhausted” the supply of larger trees, making it “necessary to accept smaller and smaller stock.” 1
These warnings went unheeded by the forest industry and clearcutting, loss of old forests, and a decline in age diversity continued unabated. In fact, it accelerated with the advent of highly mechanized logging equipment. But it wasn’t until 1997 that alarm bells started ringing within the DNR, particularly with regard to cutting on private lands: “Forest stands are being harvested while they are still immature… softwood harvests have exceeded the sustainable supply level…overharvesting is a potentially serious problem demanding immediate attention,” the position paper stated.
What’s interesting about the DNR warnings is that in the early 1900s, and even in 1958, the observations focused on the ecology and condition of the province’s forests and on the ways in which forest structure and health were being affected by harvesting methods and levels. Today, discussions about the forests focus on how to ensure that the forests can sustain industrial harvest levels.
So, by 2008 when citizens were gathering in community halls across the province they were aware of a number of things. Our forests were getting significantly younger and the old forests were nearly gone. Species that depend on intact, un-fragmented forests were under relentless assault and by 2008 the number of forest-dependent species at risk was on the rise — a trend that continues today. And the forests were being managed to provide what the pulp mills wanted: Nova Scotia’s Acadian forest, one that was dominated by long-lived species like white pine, red spruce, sugar maple, and yellow birch was starting to look a lot more like the Boreal — dominated by softwood species like balsam fir and white spruce. While the total area harvested had fallen since peaking in 1997 at 70,000 hectares, it still remained about 50 per cent higher than what it had been 20-30 years earlier. And of the forests that had been cut in 2008, roughly 94 per cent had been clearcut.
The damage had been done. Loss of age diversity, tree species diversity and biodiversity were all the result of forest liquidation on an industrial scale.
But clearcutting remains the harvesting method of choice. According to the National Forestry Database Program, in 2014 clearcutting still accounted for 88 per cent of all harvesting in the province. 2
Let’s face it, once money is invested in expensive machinery, the pressure for wood goes up. A few years ago, Nancy McInnis Leek, a specialist forester at the DNR, told me that “managing woodlands takes a lot of time and work,” and that it wasn’t economical. “Clearcutting is pure economics.”
Maybe it’s “pure economics” for the forest industry, which is mainly concerned with short-term gains for absentee investors, but small rural communities that depend on stable long-term employment pay a heavy price. Clearcutting every 50 years cannot sustain natural forest ecosystems or contribute to long-term community vitality. Ike Barber, the Canadian forest industrialist who founded Slocan Forest Products in British Columbia, told The Globe and Mail back in 1997:
I spent all my working life basically unemploying people… installing equipment that would provide an economic return and displace some people. The thrust of our whole industry has been to do that.
Wade Prest is the former president of the Nova Scotia Woodlot Owners and Operators Association. He’s also a woodlot owner and manages 800 hectares of forest land in eastern Nova Scotia. “Part of the reason that clearcutting is such an issue for us here is that we’re doing it on such young stands, and it’s getting younger all the time,” he says. Prest says the real issue driving unsustainable practices is the need to get the fibre as cheaply as possible to the mill yard. “By the time you get into the woods there’s no money left in the rates to do good forest management.”
Enough of Status Quo
Despite knowing that forest ecosystems are complex, that biodiversity is key to resilience, and that forests are part of our life support system, there were still some people at that Blockhouse meeting who reduced the value of the forest to its fibre alone. 3
One of those in attendance at the Blockhouse meeting was Jonathan Porter. At the time he was the woodlands manager of what was then called AbitibiBowater, a pulp and paper company in Liverpool that had been in existence since 1929. It was founded as the Mersey Paper Co. by industrialist Izaak Walton Killam and by the time it shut down in 2012, selling all its assets to the Nova Scotian government, it was known as Resolute Forest Products.
Porter was there representing large forest industry interests. He still is, only now in a different capacity — a subject we’ll return to. He spoke out and assured the crowd that industrial harvesting did not compromise all the other forest values they held dear.
That spring, 27 communities were visited by the committee members, 2,000 people attended the meetings, and the committee received 600 written submissions (including mine). In its report on phase one the committee concluded:
The status quo is not an option… the status quo cannot sustain the biodiversity of our natural environment, enhance the economy, or preserve the rural lifestyle so valued by the citizens of this province… Nova Scotians made it clear that change must happen in all areas of natural resource management — and happen soon.
The overwhelming public sentiment shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise. A public opinion survey conducted back in 1999 by the Nova Forest Alliance found that 98 per cent of those surveyed in central Nova Scotia said that sustainable forest management was an important goal to achieve and that 91 per cent felt the rate of timber harvest was too high to sustain the forest for other values or uses. It also revealed that the majority of those surveyed felt clearcutting should not be used as a harvest method because it harms wildlife, ruins forests, causes erosion, looks bad, and wastes wood.
Stranger than Fiction
In the second phase of the Natural Resource Strategy process, Porter reappeared. He was selected along with wildlife biologist Bob Bancroft and forest scientist Donna Crossland to put together two reports for then-DNR Minister John MacDonell: one about biomass and one about clearcutting. Panels of expertise like this one were selected by a three-person steering committee appointed by the Minister and its job was to research the issues and themes that emerged from the public meetings, hold “stakeholder” consultations while “remaining faithful to citizen values articulated in phase one.” The panels would submit draft reports and recommendations to the steering panel. But, according to Bancroft, “Porter did everything he could to block any progress for change… he did not collaborate as he was supposed to with respect to the panel mandate and the Voluntary Planning public consultation results, but rather strove to sabotage our efforts.” In the end, Porter wrote his own dissenting report, in support of clearcutting and biomass harvesting.
In it, Porter also set forth his vision for the role of government in the forest sector and in particular the role of regulation. In a nutshell, he said less is better. Porter argued that compliance with existing regulations should be improved but that any new regulations to control harvesting practices “should not be implemented.” He suggested that voluntary compliance through education of best practices would be enough to turn the tide.
But history has shown us that a hands-off approach just doesn’t work.
In his seminal 1991 book, The Politics of Pollution, Doug Macdonald was already noticing how neoliberalism was changing how we protect the environment. Back then he noted that 20 or 30 years of pollution regulation had not been able to stop species extinctions, toxic contamination, or climate change (which by then had already been on the radar for more than two decades). But Macdonald’s book wasn’t so much about the already sad state of the Canadian environment as it was focused on the political decision-making around environmental protection — how governments decide what they will or will not do — and he discovered that while the environment was in a legal sense better protected than it had been 30 years previous, things were getting worse. He attributed this decline to our adherence to economic expansion and to the fact that regulations were only really successful when specific, enforceable targets were put in place, as was the case with acid rain and ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
But around the time Macdonald’s book was being written, neoliberalism was also starting to take hold in Canada and this too was having an impact on environmental protection. Right wing think-tanks such as the Fraser Institute and the C.D Howe Institute (both deeply marinated in free market theology) were endorsing a different brand of environmental protection. They argued that the command-and-control model — with its environmental laws and regulations — needed to look more like a market-based incentive system, where compliance is voluntary and rewarded.
MacDonald says this kind of approach had been advocated by some economists in the 1970s and 1980s and had essentially gone nowhere because governments, business, and the environmental community had shown no interest. But by 1990 the times were changing and neoliberalism was becoming the new modus operandi. Even though a hands-off approach is detrimental to the interests of ordinary people, governments of all stripes advance these policies and continue to get re-elected. Today there is little if any debate about neoliberal assumptions — it is economic orthodoxy believed by the public, the mainstream media, and political parties of all stripes. 4
In 2010 the NDP government, with John MacDonell as DNR minister, did commit to a target, one to reduce clearcutting to 50 per cent of all harvesting, and it received all party support. He also made the commitment to prohibit the removal of whole trees from forest sites harvested for biomass. But around the time MacDonnell was vying for the whole-tree prohibition, hearings were underway at the Nova Scotia Utility and Review Board with Nova Scotia Power asking for permission to undertake a $200 million biomass plant — a capital investment that would be passed on to Nova Scotia ratepayers. It made the bogus argument that biomass was renewable and would help them meet the legislated targets of the province’s Renewable Energy Plan. Despite the serious concerns raised about the prospect of more clearcutting to feed the boiler, the plant was approved.
That same year, the DNR also commissioned Peter Woodbridge, a consultant and advisor to several forest industry companies in Canada and abroad, to write a report about what the economic impact of a 50 per cent reduction in clearcutting would look like for the forest industry.
It would be speculation for me to say the removal of John MacDonell from the Natural Resource portfolio in early 2011 had anything to do with forest industry pressure, but the optics certainly support the claim. For years MacDonell expressed deep concerns that the forests were being overharvested in the province and he was extremely vocal about it. As minister he was finally acting on views about clearcutting that he, like the public, held for many years. If nothing else, his removal was a sign of things to come.
To the surprise of many, in 2011 the DNR under the new minister, Charlie Parker, released its Natural Resources Strategy — and true to the previous Conservative government’s word, it more or less represented the public will. The Strategic Directions set a target for reducing clearcutting to no more than 50 per cent of all harvests, to be phased in over five years, and set in regulation; prohibit the removal of whole trees from forest sites harvested for biomass; and eliminate public funding for herbicide spraying.
But what happened next put a wrench in those plans.
An Industry on the Brink
Released in 2011, the Woodbridge report warned that the clearcutting reduction promise couldn’t have come at a worse time. The NS forest products manufacturing sector was emerging from “one of the worst global industry downturns in recent history” and that “permanent closures of mills, significant job losses and substantial financial losses by firms throughout the province have been devastating.”
According to the National Forestry Database, the annual harvest level has been declining since 1997 when it peaked at what was considered an unsustainable 70,000 hectares of land. By 2014 (the most recent data available), 32,000 hectares were cut, less than half of what it was 17 years earlier. According to what’s reported in the Registry of Buyers, harvest volumes had undergone a similar trend, from 5.8 million cubic metres in 1998 (the first year of the Registry) to 3.7 million cubic metres in 2015.
The consensus is that the decline in harvest levels is a result of the downturn in the pulp mills and the financial crisis in 2008-2009. As a result independent contractors left the industry and either moved west and found work in the tar sands or found work in other sectors. Either way, according to Woodbridge the loss in “critical mass” undermined the industry’s ability to tap into non-industrial private woodlots, which over the years has accounted for majority of harvested land. In addition, private woodlot owners were not participating in the industry to the degree that they used to.
Woodbridge argued that a policy-shift to reduce clearcutting by 50 per cent would increase wood costs to the mills so significantly — by nearly 40 per cent in the first five years of the policy — that it would put the province’s forest products industry out of business unless mitigating measures were put in place well in advance of implementing the reduction, and were successful.
Woodbridge recommended that the most important strategy was to “close the gap” between what could theoretically be harvested in the province and what was being harvested. In other words, harvesting needed to be ramped back up to where it was around the peak years and this could be done in part by getting more woodlot owners to cut their woodlots, invest in silviculture, develop new products, and increase logging capacity.
Above all else, he said, it was important to keep the pulp mills operating.
“The Woodbridge report had an effect,” says Wade Prest, the former president of the Nova Scotia Woodlot Owners and Operators Association. “It convinced [then-Premier Darrell] Dexter that he couldn’t go too far to help the pulp industry.”
The Public Purse to the Rescue
It just so happened that the same year that the Natural Resources Strategy came out (2011), three of Nova Scotia’s pulp mills were in free-fall. Resolute Forest Products in Liverpool announced it was facing “unprecedented production costs” and demanded concessions from the union (which it got) and discounted power rates from Nova Scotia Power (which it also got). In December the Dexter government offered Resolute a $50 million “rescue package,” which apparently wasn’t enough to keep the company running. In 2012 Resolute announced it would shut down and sell its assets and the Nova Scotia government became the buyer. 5
Also in 2011, the Dexter government injected a $125 million aid package into the ailing pulp giant in Port Hawkesbury, NewPage, on top of the $37 million it spent to keep the bankrupt mill in “hot idle” while they found a new buyer. The mill reopened in 2012 with a new name (Port Hawkesbury Paper) and half the employees.
Minas Basin Pulp and Power, a producer of recycled paperboard that had been in operation since 1927 shut down in 2012, to little fanfare.
With Bowater’s lands now in public hands, many argued at the time that a unique opportunity had presented itself. For instance, the Buy Back the Mersey Partnership, which brought together more than 30 groups and called on the government to buy the lands, was hoping it would protect the ecologically sensitive areas and explore options for community forests. Others saw it as a chance for the government to expand value-added industries, which manage for quality, not quantity. But neither of these visions would have delivered what Woodbridge and the forest industry was calling for. Harvesting needed to be ramped up and gaps needed to be closed.
Two years later, the DNR announced it had divvied up half of the former Bowater lands to 16 saw mills and other wood companies including Harry Freeman and Sons, Scotia Atlantic Biomass, Ledwidge Lumber, Louisiana Pacific, and JD Irving for a period of ten years. As plans firmed up the 16 companies formed a consortium (West For), which now has access to cut a total of more than half a million hectares of crown land. In addition, according to the Ecology Action Centre’s wilderness coordinator Raymond Plourde, in a secret deal approved near the end of its mandate but never announced or revealed to the public, the NDP 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. Meanwhile, 15,000 hectares were allocated to the Medway Community Forest Co-op.
“A game of semantics”
Given the Woodbridge findings and the closure of two and nearly three pulp and paper companies in the province, the pressure from industry on government to backtrack on its clearcutting and biomass commitments must have been enormous.
In 2012 the DNR under Minister Parker created a new definition for a clearcut — though according to the DNR it wasn’t new. In an email exchange with media advisor Bruce Nunn, I was told that prior to 2012 there was “no formal definition” for a clearcut in Nova Scotia and that “given the objective to track harvest activities a definition to quantify clearcuts was required.” Needless to say, the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers already had a perfectly good definition of clearcuts in the Canadian context: a silvicultural system in which most merchantable trees in a stand are harvested simultaneously where often some mature trees are retained to act as a seed source.
But nevertheless it became pretty obvious that the need for a definition was a public relations move to get the numbers to start saying what they wanted them to. The DNR’s official definition of a clearcut is “where less than 60 per cent of the area is sufficiently occupied with trees taller than 1.3 m.” A forester and now environmental lawyer Jamie Simpson has been quoted saying that in practical terms this new definition meant that “half of all cutting can leave a moonscape; the other half can leave a scattering of low-quality trees, none necessarily higher than 4 feet.” EAC’s Matt Miller argued the government was “playing a game of semantics” and undermining its own credibility on the issue. 6
In 2013 the NDP government lost the election to Stephen McNeil’s Liberals, who a year later hired Jonathan Porter as the Executive Director of the department’s renewable resources branch and appointed Allan Eddy, a former senior forester with Nova Scotia Power, as Associate Deputy Minister. They joined Jonathan Kierstead, also formerly of Bowater who had been hired a couple years earlier and was Director of Forestry.
If nothing else, hiring the “Company Men” certainly sent a clear message: the industrial forestry model was being re-entrenched as the modus operandi. And, if there was any doubt about this, Peter Woodbridge, the paid industry-shill, confirmed it. In 2014 he weighed in again, this time congratulating the Nova Scotian government for taking the “steady Eddie” approach to regulation: managing the “regulatory policy steering wheel” with a “steady hand.” He wrote:
It was a few brave political leaders, as well as deputies and staff from a handful of ministries, who stuck out their necks and acted to help save the industry… There were some important back-stories that heightened the drama. At the time, there was legislation on the books to reduce the level of clearcutting by 50 per cent over five years. This would have increased the industry’s wood costs substantially… The process of achieving these goals, however — and particularly the timetables that some would like to impose on the private sector — have to take global competitive realities into account. If they do not, Nova Scotia’s forest industry could soon revert to the “brink of disaster” that existed in 2012… Desirable economic, social and environmental goals are clear to most ordinary Nova Scotians. They may not study the forestry industry in great depth, but they know what is right and what is wrong.
When DNR Minister Lloyd Hines delivered the update to the Natural Resources Strategy last month, he did not listen or deliver on behalf of the public. Instead, as Miller said in a press release, it was a “massive failure in public policy.”
The public was called eight years ago to create a vision for how “resources” should be managed. But that effort has been squandered. The demise of the pulp and paper sector also presented a unique window of opportunity to transform the forest industry into what the public was calling for. But that too was lost.
Instead of supporting smaller value-added industries and working to restore the Acadian forest so that it might sustain us well into the future, the government has opted for the status quo: continue supplying pulp mills and biomass plants with cheap fibre from degraded forests.
Prest says, “We’ve degraded the forest so badly now that it’s beyond practical return and the only reason we can keep harvesting it over and over again is because technology is being employed to make an even lower value product out of it.”
Perhaps what we should now focus on is this: figuring out what the forests we have left can sustainably offer, without compromising soils and water, habitat, biodiversity, wood quality, and productivity, and then creating a forest industry out of that. Needless to say, this kind of transformation would involve much more than a clearcutting target.
What’s clear is that the DNR, a publicly funded department created to act in the public interest and regulate the forestry sector is now a prime example of “regulatory capture,” a term used to describe agencies that advance commercial, industrial interests at the expense of the public one.
The question is, how do we capture it back?
Linda Pannozzo is an author and freelance journalist. Her latest book, About Canada: The Environment (published by Fernwood) will be out next month.
- Dr. Bernhard Fernow made observations about the Nova Scotia forest in 1910. His remarks are cited in Nova Scotia Department of Lands and Forests. 1958. The Forest Resources of Nova Scotia. Prepared by L.S. Hawboldt and R.M. Bulmer, p. 62. ↩
- According to DNR these numbers really need to be taken with a grain of salt. According to Media Relations Advisor Bruce Nunn, the Registry of Buyers is the principle source of harvesting data… as “province-wide [clearcut data] are difficult to confirm since only statistics for Crown lands can be confirmed; numbers for private lands are only estimates. Estimates (using a consistent formula) for province-wide forested land clearcuts are reported annually to the National Forestry Database.” Personal Communication, August 26, 2016. ↩
- Apart from wood products, healthy forest ecosystems also provide essential services like climate regulation, habitat, watershed protection, flood and natural pest control, soil formation, and long-term storage of carbon, just to name a few. The value of the cultural, spiritual and aesthetic benefits we gain from forests is almost impossible to quantify. ↩
- For more on this subject see Constructing Neoliberalism: Economic Transformation in Anglo-American Democracies, by Purdue University political science professor Jonathan Swarts. He observes that the shift toward neoliberalism in Britain, the US, Australia, and New Zealand wasn’t about tinkering with policies, but rather with replacing what had been a more interventionist view of the role of the state with a hands-off approach. ↩
- It purchased all shares in the Bowater Mersey paper company for $1 from owners Resolute Forest Products and The Washington Post Company. The assets transferred to Nova Scotia government included 225,000 hectares (valued at $115-$120 million, 10,000 hectares of which were purchased by Resolute using nearly $24 million of the government “rescue package”), the pulp and paper mill in Brooklyn (valued at $5 million), a deep water marine terminal in Brooklyn, and the Brooklyn Power Corporation biomass electrical generating plant. Liabilities included a $20 million debt to Resolute Forest Products, Inc; a $120 million pension liability for workers in the woodland/ pulp mill operations, and all environmental liabilities for the pulp mill site. ↩
- If you’re interested in looking at pictures compiled by the DNR on what is and is not considered a clearcut go to: http://novascotia.ca/NATR/strategy/clear-cut-definition.asp ↩