The Sunday Herald


Lois Legge Features Writer

Surprise! Environmentalists and the government don't see eye to eye on how to revamp Nova Scotia's forestry policy

ASEPTEMBER breeze rustles the leaves on the little trees. In the distance, the sun glistens off the waters of Bedford Basin.

It's warm and quiet here on this isolated Rockingham hilltop. And it seems a perfect scene of a lovely fall day.

But environmentalist Minga O'Brien, of Halifax's Ecology Action Centre, sees something else. The area also shows the telltale signs of clearcutting, something she describes as a "devastating" forestry practice that's increased across Nova Scotia in recent years.

Where old, long-lived tree species once stood, there are now tiny, young poplars or white birch - so-called "trash" species that are of little use to the forestry industry and all that typically sprouts up after an area has been levelled.

"It upsets me because when you're looking at 500 square kilometres of our forest being treated like this every year, what you're seeing is a huge change in the composition of our forests . . . and the structure of our forests and all the biodiversity associated with that forest."

Clearcutting has long been considered a dirty word by environmentalists. But now, the well-known Nova Scotia environmental group is hoping to make the issue front and centre with provincial residents too, as the province prepares to develop a new forestry strategy, part of a four-pronged effort to develop a future direction for forestry, biodiversity, mining and parks.

O'Brien and the centre's own literature claim 98 per cent of the trees harvested in Nova Scotia are clear cut: basically levelling all trees in a certain area.

The Forest Products Association of Nova Scotia, representing industry, disputes the 98 per cent figure, putting it closer to 85 per cent.

O'Brien says the practice destroys old trees (and as a result, the long-term sustainability of the industry), eliminates key habitat for wildlife and jeopardizes the ecosystem itself.

The forest products association claims clearcutting is necessary, and, in some cases, better than the method favoured by the centre, something called selection harvesting - picking which trees to cut down in a particular stand.

And as the province prepares to schedule public hearings on a new forestry strategy, the parties aren't in full agreement about how the whole issue should be examined.

The Ecology Action Centre wants the province to use Voluntary Planning, a provincial government board that operates at arms length from government and provides policy advice on various issues. The board often sets up public hearings, recruiting diverse groups of volunteers to listen to presentations and prepare recommendations, a recent example being consultations on the use of all terrain vehicles.

O'Brien says that method is key if the process is to be fair and not slanted toward industry, something she believes has been a historical problem with the department. For example, she says, the vast majority of members on a forestry committee, which regularly advises the minister of Natural Resources, are from industry.

Steve Talbot, executive director of the Forest Products Association of Nova Scotia, has his doubts about people other than Natural Resources staff running the consultations.

"I think we would feel more comfortable if the expertise within the Department of Natural Resources was actually looking at it. I mean they've got all the resources to make good, sound decisions in terms of a longer-term sustainable strategy for the forest industry in this province," he said in a recent interview.

"I suppose it depends on exactly who would be on the voluntary planning task force. I guess I have some reservations."

O'Brien believes Premier Rodney MacDonald already agreed to the voluntary planning process during last June's election campaign.

Asked about the consultation process on a questionnaire sent to candidates by the Nova Scotia Environmental Network, MacDonald said: "Yes, a Progressive Conservative government will continue our commitment to ensuring that public consultations are conducted by a third party and are inclusive of the Nova Scotia public, being conducted in communities across the province and open to everyone who wishes to participate.

MacDonald goes on to explain the voluntary planning process, which he says "is transparent so that it is fair, and is perceived to be fair, in representing the views of citizens." He doesn't say outright, however, that he would use that process.

Still, says O'Brien, "that sounds to us like a commitment to use voluntary planning. . . . Now we're trying to get them to actually live up to it."

The premier's office didn't respond directly to requests for a comment. However, Natural Resources Minister David Morse outlined his approach during an interview this week.

"We'd be prepared to use their public hearing experience to help organize (public meetings)," he said. But, he stressed, "I'm not prepared to hand over the writing of a report to an arm's-length agency that . . . is going to dictate the whole future direction of this department.

"We're on the verge of coming forward with a suggested format for doing this properly, which will be going to cabinet . . . sometime this fall.

"I am encouraging people to come out and contribute to the public hearing process, but ultimately I'm looking for recommendations from staff as to what they heard out there and how we might improve our existing departmental strategy."

Morse says he doesn't believe the department is too close to industry, noting his willingness to meet with diverse groups and an upcoming meeting he has scheduled with a representative of the Ecology Action Centre.

"I could hardly depict that person as being part of the industry lobby, so I'm pleased to hear from them and I think that there are some exciting opportunities in this province to do things in a more sustainable basis," he said, noting "greening the province" was one of his party's key election campaign commitments.

But the centre wants a more specific commitment. It hopes the province will agree to reduce clearcutting to 75 per cent of forest harvesting by the year 2008, with a progressive reduction in the following years. O'Brien says the province could set a great example by banning clearcutting on Crown land.

Morse wouldn't say if he supports either proposal.

"I want to hear the arguments in favour of a change in the forestry practice. I'd like to hear my staff's comments and I'd like to have a chance to weigh the arguments, and then, once we go through due process, we'll reach a position and we'll be judged on that position."

O'Brien, who has a masters degree in ecology and is forest conservation co-ordinator for the centre's Standing Tall Forests For Life campaign, says selection harvesting is far better for the environment and industry than clearcutting.

"You go in and you create gaps, small gaps, maybe occasionally a larger gap and that is kind of copying nature and then allowing for those long-lived species to come (back) . . . into those gaps.

"If you open up the canopy (of trees) too much, like you do in a clearcut, what happens is you get . . . short-lived, low-value species (such as poplar). . . . Those species, they love the sun, but in fact they've got very little merchantability from the forest industry's perspective.

Plus , she says, "the new forest coming in is less and less vigorous and you get a loss in soil fertility, carbon losses from the soil, loss of nutrients, and the quality of your trees, the vigour of your trees, goes downhill."

So does wildlife habitat, says O'Brien, noting some species are already paying the price. Animals like the American marten and lynx are endangered species, she says, while tree species like hemlock and red spruce are becoming scarce.

Even fish, she says, are affected by the loss of the forest. Salmon, for instance, depend on cold, well-oxygenated water.

"If they don't have that, that habitat is simply unsuitable and what the trees do is keep all the streams beautifully shaded" and therefore cool.

Talbot, whose 700-member association represents sawmills, pulp and paper companies, silviculture and harvesting contractors and some landowners, says no one wants to see the forest depleted.

But industry is, in many ways, stuck with the forest it's got, a result of what he describes as massive clearcutting and "high grading" - taking the best and leaving the rest - in the 1950s and 1960s.

"So in a lot of cases what we've got to work with is not necessarily stands that will allow you to selection manage the areas. And in order to get into a selection management situation, you have to conduct a clearcut and go back and actually start a new generation of trees in a newer, healthier forest, and eventually you'll be able to bring it back to where you can actually selectively manage it."

That regrowth takes time though, he says. And in the meantime, the forest industry - a $1-billion-a-year industry in Nova Scotia, which employs about 16,000 people directly or indirectly - needs to use a variety of options: clearcutting, replanting, even herbicide spraying, something the forestry association calls intensive forest management.

That allows the industry to grow trees at a faster rate than would otherwise be possible, he says.

"So what we're doing is helping nature along."

Talbot doesn't think the ecology centre's clearcutting reduction target is realistic.

"I don't have a problem with the concept as long as they don't have a problem with the concept of intensive forest management, and I think it's doable and I think it's a win, win situation for everybody involved."

He stresses though that any move to reach such targets should include a careful review of the social and economic consequences.

"If we set aside (land) for no use whatsoever, other than letting nature take its course, what are the economic consequences of doing that? I mean if next door, we've got a sawmill that depends on a certain amount of fibre, what are the consequences if that sawmill shuts down? . . . There may be 50 jobs that are gone.

"Well, those 50 people may now be on social assistance or they're on EI or whatever. Is the province willing to accept that as a consequence of the decision they made?"( )