Last week, several new forest blocks totalling 171 hectares (422 acres) appeared on the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources’ Harvest Plans Map Viewer. The blocks, posted by the Abercrombie pulp giant Northern Pulp, are located in the Twin Lakes area of Halifax County, roughly 2.5 hours from Halifax, an hour inland from Sheet Harbour 1.
According to Brad Toms, the wildlife biologist at the Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute (MTRI), an organization that leads a government- and industry-funded research and monitoring program for the endangered boreal felt lichen, the planned cuts could sound the death knell for a number of these lichen.
Toms says the Twin Lakes area is “an important site” for the species, “with 27 host trees and 35 boreal felt lichen on them in a relatively small area with currently intact habitat.” He says these factors give it “a high chance of reproducing and surviving,” if given better protection.
But according to Bruce Nunn of the DNR, the current rules and regulations around protecting the boreal felt lichen are being followed by the pulp company and a minimum of 100 metres is being retained around the host trees. “Harvesting practices will adjust if there are changes to policy in the future.”
Sounds simple enough. But there’s a lot more to it than that.
In Muzzling the Forest Keepers, I reported that Robert Cameron, a government ecologist within the NS Department of Environment’s Parks and Protected Areas, was being muzzled because his research findings were in conflict with the messaging coming out of the Department of Natural Resources.
Cameron had been studying the boreal felt lichen, a species that in 2005 was listed as “endangered” under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA), a move that legally requires governments to protect it. Cameron’s research was showing that the alarming decline observed in the species since 2003 was a result of climate change, air pollution, and clearcutting — a harvesting practice that dominates the forest industry in the province.
In 2014, Cameron presented his findings at a conference held by the Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute, and one of his slides — the one that pointed to unsustainable forest practices in the province — caught the ire of Allan Eddy, then Associate Deputy Minister of the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources. This led to a series of emails, accessed through Freedom of Information, that revealed that Cameron was subsequently censured, perhaps formally, and that his ability to share his work with the public was being obstructed.
Crown land crucial to lichen’s survival
Cameron’s work also showed that in 2005 there were only 15 known sites with boreal felt lichen on them. But over a 10-year period 400 trees with the lichen were located and 117 of those were lost so that by 2015 — with the gains and losses taken into account — there had been a 30 per cent decline*. Without increased protection and conservation efforts, the BFL population in Nova Scotia is set to decline by 50 per cent within 25 years.
But here’s the crucial point: Given that the vast majority of the lichen — nearly 90 per cent of it — occurs on crown land in the province, the way the government manages this land is crucial to the survival of the species.
So, in an attempt to stop or reverse the decline a recovery strategy was developed in 2007 — a legal requirement when a species is listed — and the recovery team (co-chaired by Cameron and Toms) recommended a 100-metre buffer on crown land around sites occupied by boreal felt lichen as a precautionary measure until more research could determine steps forward. It was hoped at the time that the buffer would reduce the “edge effects” caused by forest harvesting: industrial-scale cuts nearby change the light, wind, and temperature — essentially the mircro-climate — of these sites, making them less hospitable to lichen.
But studies of sites where the 100-metre buffer has been used indicate that clearcutting around the species is still killing them. These findings were reported in an article published in the peer-reviewed journal Canadian Journal of Forest Research. The authors concluded that a wider buffer was needed.
In 2014, the recovery team approached the DNR and proposed changes to the Special Management Practices and asked for a 500-metre Special Management Zone that would continue applying the 100-metre no-cut buffer but would involve an additional radius of 400 metres where cuts are permitted but not to exceed 15 hectares. The recovery team also stipulated that each subsequent harvest within the extra 400 metres of the radius should be delayed until the previous cut block becomes fully stocked with regenerating trees at least three meters in height. As well, if any habitat is discovered that is suitable to boreal felt lichen in terms of future colonization, then that too should be retained. The team considered it a “compromise” position since stricter measures could be taken.
By 2016 the recovery team still hadn’t heard from the DNR. That year, the unresolved issue was referenced in a report by Michael Pickup, the Auditor General of Nova Scotia, in which Pickup cited the DNR for not meeting its legislated obligations for the conservation and recovery of species at risk.
Pickup’s report noted that 60 species were at risk in the province — 28 of which were in imminent danger of extinction. The DNR assured Pickup it would address “any outstanding recommendations from recovery teams” by October 31, 2016 — a deadline that has come and gone.
Now nearly five months on, a decision still hasn’t been officially communicated. However — and this is speculation on my part — based on the speed with which the DNR is approving clearcuts on crown lands that contain prime boreal felt lichen habitat in the province, it seems like delaying a decision might also be a stalling tactic — one that would ultimately benefit industrial forest interests that have wood allocation agreements with the province.
Clearly, the bigger buffer proposed by the recovery team, with its enhanced cutting restrictions, would mean that more crown forests would be “offline,” a move the forest industry considers highly unpalatable.
One industry spokesperson reported that if the DNR adopted the recommendation, it would make it difficult for his company to meet its wood supply targets 2. For its part, Northern Pulp has a crown allocation of 225,000 tonnes/year — an amount that doubled in 2014 in a secret deal with the province. In addition, Northern Pulp gets wood from small woodlot owners and from its own private land holdings — in 2010 the company purchased 475,000 acres from Neenah Paper, with the help of a $75 million loan from the NDP government.
Below is close up of the forests around Twin Lakes that are slated to be clearcut, showing the endangered lichen (orange dots), the current 100-metre no-cut buffer (yellow lines) and the recommended 500-metre Special Management Area (red dotted lines). Clearly, if the recommendation of the recovery team were to be adopted, the proposed cuts would be a lot smaller.
Who’s Managing Whom?
There are a number of givens in this story: One is that the provincial government has a legal obligation to protect species at risk. The other is that boreal felt lichen (as well as other species at risk, including vole ears lichen and mainland moose) has been identified in the Twin Lakes area. The current practice of leaving a 100-metre uncut buffer has been scientifically shown to be inadequate as a protection measure, and the DNR is currently considering the 500-metre recommendation from the recovery team. Therefore, wouldn’t it be prudent to at least put the cutting around known BFL sites on hold until such time that a decision — one that is long overdue — is made on the matter?
That got me thinking. How do these harvest sites on crown land get chosen anyway? That is, what kind of vetting process do companies have to go through to end up on the Harvest Plans Map Viewer and eventually approved? I sent this question to Bruce Nunn and I was somewhat surprised by what I got back.
Here is the process:
1. The Licensee [in this case Northern Pulp] identifies a proposed harvest area and identifies any sensitive features requiring mitigation with data available to them.
2. DNR’s Integrated Resource Management or IRM Teams review the harvest plan to determine if any harvesting can occur in the planned area.
3. The Licensee proceeds with Pretreatment Assessment and any field surveys required (i.e. BFL surveys) and refines the plan based upon information gathered.
4. The Licensee may post the block to the HPMV (Harvest Plans Map Viewer) at this point.
5. The Licensee submits the refined plan to DNR for a comprehensive review conducted by the IRM team. All available data on sensitive features are referenced during the review and other DNR professional staff consulted if required.
6. The IRM Team reviews the proposed plan and rejects, approves or approves with conditions (i.e. changes required). The plan may be field audited by DNR.
7. The plan is posted on the HPMV if not posted at step 4.
8. Public comments are addressed and changes made if required.
9. If the area is approved, the licensee is notified.
So, forest companies (licensees) post the harvest blocks, not the DNR, and the companies are permitted to post the plans while the IRM review is taking place. The public has 20 days to comment, the DNR have 35 days to approve the plan, and if it’s “selected for further review,” time is extended to 60 days. I asked Nunn why a licensee, that could post a harvest plan at step #4 would wait until step #7 to do so:
The HPMV posting system was designed to allow the Licensee flexibility in harvest scheduling while still providing for public input on proposed harvest plans. Any new information received at any time before harvesting will be considered in final approvals.
I take this to mean, they post sooner if they hope to cut sooner. Nunn says that Northern Pulp posted the Twin Lakes blocks at step #4 in the process, and the blocks are currently under review by the IRM team and the public.
Will step #6 be what saves the lichen? Will the IRM Team review the proposed plan and reject it based on its legal obligations to protect species at risk?
Not if the nearby boreal felt lichen habitat near Square Lake is any indication. It too underwent some kind of review process, but was approved and clearcut in 2016. It now lies in ruin. Clearly the system, and the lichen, are in steep decline. The question is: When will the public regain control of public lands from the forest industry and will it be in time to avoid another extinction?
Stay tuned for Part 2 when the Examiner goes on a road trip to find out what’s really going on in the woods of Nova Scotia.
* An earlier version of this article mistakenly phrased this sentence as follows: “Cameron’s work also revealed that between 2005 and 2015 there has been a 30 per cent decline in the species: in 2005, 400 trees in the province had boreal felt lichen growing on them and by 2015 only 283 trees had.” We regret the error.
- A succession of companies has owned the Abercrombie pulp mill: Scott Paper (1967 – 1995); Kimberly Clark (1995 – 2004); Neenah Paper (2004-2008); and Northern Pulp (2008 to present). According to a chronology compiled by the Clean the Mill group, in 2008 Neenah Paper sold the mill to Northern Resources, owned by US-based Blue Wolf Capital Management and Atlas Holdings. This is when we start referring to the mill as Northern Pulp. Then in 2011, the pulp mill is sold again, this time without a name change, to Paper Excellence Canada — a subsidiary of Asia Pulp and Paper (APP). At the time, APP — owned by the Indonesian billionaire Widjaja family — was on a buying spree in Canada and had picked up five ailing pulp mills from across the country. In addition to Northern Pulp there were two in Saskatchewan and two in BC. In 2015 it shut down Howe Sound Pulp and Paper on BCs Sunshine Coast, laying off 180 workers. Northern Pulp is the last of Nova Scotia’s so-called “Big Three” mills. Bowater Mersey is gone and The Port Hawkesbury mill operates at a fraction of what it once did. ↩
- This was previously reported in Muzzling the Forest Keepers. The forest industry person speaking here is Andrew Fedora, the Leader in Sustainability and Outreach at Port Hawkesbury Paper, a pulp company located on the Strait of Canso. ↩