After months of silence from aboriginal leaders in New Brunswick, the chief of Eel Ground First Nation is voicing concerns about the Alward government's plan to increase the industrial harvest of softwood on Crown land by 20 per cent.
Academics and environmentalists have raised objections from the outset, with a major concern being the conservation forest, which is off-limits to industry, is being reduced to 23 per cent of the Crown land in the forest, down from the current level of 28 per cent.
Aboriginal leaders have been quiet on the issue, but with two weeks to go before the deal with industry is signed, Eel Ground First Nation Chief George Ginnish is speaking out on behalf of his community.
"We would be concerned about sustainability," said Ginnish on CBC Information Morning in Fredericton on Wednesday. "We would be concerned about biodiversity.
"We would be concerned about the [impact] these changes have on the deer, on the moose, which provide a basic sustenance to many of our members," he said.
Over time, the new plan will see the makeup of New Brunswick's Crown forest change, with the amount of mature stands of forest being reduced to 10 per cent from the current share of 26 per cent, according to the Department of Natural Resources. In 50 years, it is forecast 21 per cent of the Crown forest would be softwood plantation, up from the present-day share of 12 per cent.
"If over time, the shift from an Acadian-type forest to a new type of harvest that is primarily focused on `Let's grow timber quick,' then absolutely it's going to impact," said Ginnish.
"That impacts us. You're basically changing the makeup of the province to suit industry and I don't think that's a good move."
The new plan increases the amount of softwood available for harvest by First Nations in the province by more than 30,000 cubic metres. Based on the First Nations timber cut of 214,860 cubic metres in 2012-13, the additional allotment amounts to a 14 per cent increase. The forest industry is seeing a 20 per cent increase in their annual allowable cut of softwood.
Ginnish said there was minimal consultation with aboriginal leaders over the forest plan, despite obligations to consult and possibily accommodate aboriginal people on resource matters that possibly impact their treaty rights.
"Unfortunately, our concerns haven't been taken seriously," said Ginnish. "As it is with many files, it's `Bear with us', `We're working on it', `We think we can get that into the process,'" he said. "But our issues are met with indifference.
"The real accommodation is made for the larger players. Once again, we find ourselves pretty much entirely out of the loop," said Ginnish.
"Because our concerns may not line up with where the province sees the industry going, it falls on deaf ears, it's not accommodated."
Ginnish, who is also a co-chief of the Assembly of First Nations Chiefs of New Brunswick but was speaking on behalf of his community, says First Nations in New Brunswick don't have the resources to mount a legal challenge to forestry changes based on their treaty rights and the government's duty to consult.
"We have to pick and choose and right now, our primary issue, I have to say, is poverty in our First Nations," he said, noting the ongoing legal case with the federal government over social welfare rates.
"If it was up to us and we had the war chest, we'd be in court on a half a dozen other things."