The Chronicle-Herald


Ralph Surette

Stora Enso debacle: a failure of forest policy?

BEHIND the Stora Enso saga - in which we agonize about subsidizing the pulp and paper industry even more than before - is a deeper and even more irritated question: What about our forest policy which has, for 40 years now, been yoked to pulp mills and the use of the Nova Scotia forest for the lowest possible value products, degrading it drastically in the process?

Would the permanent closure of the Stora mill at Port Hawkesbury - which could be as close as the upcoming Utility and Review Board decision on what power rates the mills have to pay - provoke the following question? What should we do with the liberated forest lands, and indeed with forest land generally?

Others - including P.E.I. and New Brunswick - have been asking such questions in the face of a drastic decline in the forest industry.

Reduced demand for paper because of recycling and the Internet, combined with rising energy costs, the high Canadian dollar and increasing competition from Asia and Europe have caused many pulp mills across the country to close.

The U.S. housing bubble, now bursting, is hitting the lumber trade hard.

Some 10,000 forest jobs were lost in Canada last year.

The only wood holding its value right now in Nova Scotia is firewood.

As it turns out, the question has been lurking in the background.

The Nova Scotia government is planning a review of its strategy with regard to forestry, mining, parks and natural biodiversity. During the election campaign, environmental groups extracted from Premier Rodney MacDonald the promise that the review would be done by the Voluntary Planning Board, thus ensuring an open process, rather than by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which functions virtually as an arm of the big mills and has a history of making a show of consulting the public and ignoring the results.

This is a key point, and the Ecology Action Centre has a campaign on now to make sure the promise is kept.

Our policy of cheap wood fibre, clearcuts and softwood monoculture to the exclusion of everything else has resulted in Nova Scotia being near the bottom of the list among provinces in terms of economic spinoffs from our forest industry.

As of last count, a cubic metre of wood harvested in Nova Scotia generated $82 worth of economic activity. In Ontario it was $273, Quebec $204, Manitoba $187 and New Brunswick $123.

Furthermore, the clearcutting was, until last year, getting more and more relentless - having reached 500 square kilometres a year for the previous five years. Meanwhile, tellingly, as the cutting increased over the past 15 years, the number of jobs decreased as the operations became more mechanized.

Who is benefiting from this destruction?

DNR has what it calls its Forest Sustainability Regulations. However "sustainability" in this context means mostly fast-tracking "fibre" production by turning Nova Scotia into a vast tree farm, in which clearcuts are planted over with fast-growing species and competing hardwoods are zapped with chemicals.

DNR projects that within 60 years nearly two-thirds of Nova Scotia forest will be of this artificial kind.

Meanwhile, critics charge that silviculture support is geared almost exclusively to growing softwood.

I was in New Brunswick last weekend, where a friend of mine is a silviculture contractor. I'm always amazed, seeing his handiwork, that virtually everything except near-bush species like alder and wild cherry is left standing.

In New Brunswick, poplar, beech, birch and so on are all useful trees. In Nova Scotia, they're not. Why not?

I was looking at the report by the P.E.I. Forest Council that kicked off the review of forestry policy in that province, in which it called for "full-cost accounting" in forestry - that is, count the true costs, including effects on groundwater, wildlife habitat, tourism, quality of life values, and so on.

This is the approach that GPI Atlantic, developers of a "genuine progress" index, has been arguing in Nova Scotia, to little avail.

The drama over power rates for pulp mills could be called, at least in part, the consequence of a failed forest policy.

The closure of Stora Enso, if it happens, should at least have the positive effect of forcing us to think realistically about our forests.

And even if it stays open, I think we've seen enough to provoke some second thoughts.  

Ralph Surette is a veteran freelance journalist living in Yarmouth County.