The Chronicle-Herald

2006.11.14

Ecology Action Centre

Natural Resources at the crossroads

THE Department of Natural Resources is developing a new 10-year strategy for Nova Scotia. The process it will use is very important.

Whoa. At this point, if you're like normal people, you're moving on to the next article.

But wait a second. What if someone asked you, "How much clearcutting is too much? Is strip-mining beside rural communities OK? Should more provincial parks be closed? Will my kid be able to get a job in the woods?"

Those are really important questions. You need a say in what the answers are - and in who asks the questions, collects the answers, develops policy recommendations, and reports back to government.

The provincial Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has promised to develop a new 10-year plan for Nova Scotia's woods, mines, parks and biodiversity. This plan will affect the very fabric of our province. DNR has come a long way over the past year in figuring out how it wants to do this. The department has promised "open and inclusive consultations." It has also promised to have someone from outside the department work on consulting the public. These are all good steps. But the minister insists that the department's own staff write the final recommendations for a new strategy.

But what happens to the land and landscape of this province goes beyond any one department's mandate. What we do with our lands and forests affects tourism, hunting and fishing, jobs, our communities, our fish and wildlife. How we manage our lands impacts our wells, water tables and groundwater supplies. It determines if we'll have parks and wilderness areas for our children and grandchildren. It fundamentally affects our lives.

Natural Resources has the overall say for forestry and mining, but its issues spill over into many other departments - Economic Development, Tourism, Culture and Heritage, Health, Environment and Labour, and Fisheries, just to name a few.

We are at a crossroads in Nova Scotia, economically and environmentally. The Canadian forest industry lost 10,000 jobs last year. Pulp and paper production is moving overseas. Over 500 square kilometres of this province get clearcut every year. Our climate is changing, and yet we're converting our natural mixed-wood Acadian forests into "tree-gardens" of spruce and fir better suited for more northern parts of the country. Wildlife habitat is shrinking at an alarming rate, and we are losing our native cold-water fish species like salmon and trout in much of the province. Even the mainland moose is now listed as an endangered species.

Clearly, there's a lot to talk about. That's why we need to go beyond DNR to talk to Nova Scotians about what they want for this province. An independent, objective process, from start to finish, is essential.

We're very lucky here to have Voluntary Planning, a provincially sponsored citizens' group that works on policy issues, but is arm's-length from government. Since 1963, capable people have donated their time to Voluntary Planning policy task forces. People trust them to listen, to take their opinions seriously, and to find ways to reflect their ideas in provincial strategies.

Voluntary Planning consults the public, as well as experts and stakeholders. They carry out background research. Then they debate, discuss, distil and synthesize the results, and prepare a report that goes directly to cabinet - and simultaneously to the public. The process is open, transparent and respectful.

DNR has fallen short in public consultations in the past, like the recent review and proposed closures of several valued game sanctuaries. Even though the department is trying to do better, many people still feel "once-bitten, twice-shy" when it comes to DNR processes. Too many people have put too much of their time and effort into public consultations over the years, and then realized that departmental staff had made up their minds beforehand and just ignored the results. DNR's credibility in this regard is shaky at best.

It's better for DNR, and for Nova Scotians, for the department to step back. The government should ask Voluntary Planning to manage this entire process, and take an objective look at what we do with our lands - and what we want for our province.

A Sept. 25 editorial in this paper said: "Voluntary Planning has shown its capability to handle complex review processes. And its strong credibility with the public is an important factor. we hope Voluntary Planning's role in the upcoming review - which should certainly include leading the public consultation process - will take appropriate advantage of its strengths.

"While our natural resource industries are facing increasing international pressures, altering supply and demand trends, Nova Scotians concerned about future development of our lands, and implications for tourism, biodiversity and many other interests, deserve to have their voices fully heard."

Mr. Premier, will you listen to this wise advice?

eac

Joanne Cook and Minga O'Brien are co-ordinators of Standing Tall: Forests for Life Campaign, Ecology Action Centre.