New Brunswick's forestry industry is cranking up a letter-writing campaign to pressure the Alward government not to cut the amount of wood companies can harvest on Crown land.
The Department of Natural Resources plans to reduce the amount of wood forestry companies can cut on public land over a five-year cycle starting next year.
Environmentalists are calling the planned reduction necessary, but forest companies and the industry's main lobby group are already trying to convince politicians to reverse the planned reduction.
Saint John Lancaster Progressive Conservative MLA Dorothy Shephard tabled a petition in the legislature earlier this month on behalf of Tory and Liberal MLAs who had attended an industry-sponsored luncheon and information session.
The petition called for an "urgent request" to the provincial government to "maintain and increase the allocation levels" for mills.
The forest industry is a major economic force in many provincial ridings and Shephard said the future of jobs in the sector was a main topic at the luncheon.
"Part of the message was really about educating us as to how allocation equates to jobs," Shephard said.
Petitions tabled in the legislative assembly rarely go anywhere or have much influence on politicians. However, the Alward government has gone to great lengths to portray itself as a government driven by public consultation.
The Department of Natural Resources has an important policy decision looming this summer when it sets its annual allowable cut, which is set every five years. The decision is based on computer modelling and other projections of whether industrial cutting will leave enough wood for the province's forests to keep regenerating themselves.
And the forest companies are trying to play to the government's desire for public input.
However, environmentalists are pointing out that forest companies have put themselves in the situation where the annual allowable cut must be reduced.
David Coon, the executive director of the Conservation Council, said the planned reduction is necessary because companies have cut too much in the past and forest growth needs to catch up.
"The Crown lands have been overcut now and so that means the quotas the companies have for wood, the quotas, have to be reduced," Coon said.
Coon said J.D. Irving Ltd. and the other forest companies are lobbying the Alward government hard using newspaper ads, letter-writing campaigns and petitions.
Despite the seeming groundswell of public opinion in favour of maintaining the levels of cutting on Crown land, Coon said the provincial government is in a position where it must reduce the annual allowable cut.
"The volume of wood that DNR expected would be there in 2012 isn't there. In other words their computer projections didn't pan out," Coon said.
'We've got lots of timber'
J.D. Irving said in a statement on Tuesday that Coon's assertion of overcutting is just his opinion and there's no supporting data.
No one from the company was available for an interview about the petitions and the letters.
However, Jim Irving, the president of J.D. Irving Ltd., used virtually identical language when he told CBC News recently the forest industry cannot afford to see its wood supply reduced.
"We've got lots of timber, and it's a growing and renewable resource," Irving said.
'There is lots of wood. There's lots of wood, there's lots of habitat, and the objectives can be made if you manage it properly.'— Mark Arsenault, N.B. Forest Products Association
"We have to increase our volume of timber available to harvest, because we keep having to put capital into our mills, to re-invest, to remain competitive in this global market we're all in."
The forest industry's main lobby group is echoing Irving's statements.
Mark Arsenault, the chief executive officer of the New Brunswick Forest Products Association, said while forests are at a low point in their growth cycle, they'll soon return to normal levels.
"There is lots of wood. There's lots of wood, there's lots of habitat, and the objectives can be made if you manage it properly," he said.
Arsenault said he is confident the forests will bounce back in the next few years as trees planted in the early 1960s reach maturity.
He said he blames the planned reduction in the quota on more and more environmental protection zones that he says squeeze out industry cutting.
"Sometimes, when you pop all of those on the map, it takes up a certain amount of space," Arsenault said.
"But some of those, if you manage it differently on the map, they can overlap each other. So that leaves other areas for wood to be a workable forest, where you can go in and work."
The industry's attempt to portray a grassroots movement behind their desire to see the annual allowable cut maintained is a proven strategy.
Four years ago, J.D. Irving and the other forest companies had workers send thousands of postcards to Shawn Graham's Liberal government.
Those letters also used the names of ordinary people to urge the provincial government to follow the industry's corporate objectives.
Jeannot Volpé, a former natural resources minister and Progressive Conservative MLA, criticized the postcard campaign the last time it was attempted.
'You shouldn't let the whole debate be directed by one group. That's not good in the long term for New Brunswickers.'— Jeannot Volpé, former PC MLA
"All the Irving employees were asked to send a letter of support. The letter was already done. All they had to do was put their name on it and where they were working, and say, 'We support what the Irving group wants,'" Volpé said at the time.
Eventually, the Liberal government proposed to let industry cut deeper into conservation areas to make up for a reduced quota.
Volpé had a very clear message about his views on the industry-sponsored campaign.
"You shouldn't let the whole debate be directed by one group. That's not good in the long term for New Brunswickers," he said.
Volpé is now retired and it is up to his successors in the Progressive Conservative government to answer to the forest industry.
However, the Conservation Council's Coon said the Tories seem to be more skeptical of the forest industry line than the previous Liberal government.
"The current Conservative government is lukewarm on the strategy the Liberals had concocted, and that's why things seem to be changing," Coon said.