A New Brunswick-born scientist is calling the Alward government's change in forest policy a radical change and an experiment with the potential to result in local extinction of some birds and wildlife in the province.

Matthew Betts

Matthew Betts obtained his doctorate in forestry at the University of New Brunswick. (Courtesy University of Oregon)

The centrepiece of the province's new forest policy announced last week is to allow a 21 per cent increase in the amount of wood the forest industry can cut on Crown land, with the mature forest in New Brunswick diminishing over time.

That is of grave concern to Matthew Betts, who holds a doctorate in forestry from the University of New Brunswick and is now an associate professor in forest Ecosystems and Society at Oregon State University.

"It's impossible to project the future," said Betts. "Do we want to run the experiment in New Brunswick where we drop mature forest down to 10 or 20 per cent and then find out, too late, that we've caused local extinctions for a bunch of species?

"The one thing that we should do would be to actually have controlled replicated studies that mimic the Crown strategy on a reduced area of New Brunswick and test exactly this question."

'Do we want to run the experiment in New Brunswick where we drop mature forest down to 10 or 20 per cent and then find out, too late, that we've caused local extinctions for a bunch of species?' - Matthew Betts, forestry scientist

Betts said a paper published four years ago shows that if mature forest habitat in New Brunswick drops to between 10 per cent and 40 percent for a number of birds species in the province, "you are far more likely to see local extinction of those species in the landscapes that are concerned."

"These species actually do things that are useful for human beings," said Betts. "We've shown in some of our work that birds consume up to about their entire body mass per day in insects during the breeding period. And these insects are herbivores. They eat trees and therefore cause trees to grow more slowly.

"The question I'd ask would be is, if we cause bird populations to decline, will we see increased insect populations and greater rates of insect herbivory, therefore actually defeating the whole purpose and causing our trees to grow more slowly?"

Betts said while there has been much work done on the habitat requirements of various birds, much less is known about how amphibians, lichen and fungi stand to be impacted by the loss of mature forest habitat that would be replaced with softwood tree plantations.

"There's just so many species it's impossible to have done work on all of them," said Betts.

'What we're doing with this strategy essentially is gambling. We are shooting in the dark when it comes to those species that are less well known and we're sort of hoping for the best.' - Matthew Betts, forestry scientist

"What we're doing with this strategy essentially is gambling. We are shooting in the dark when it comes to those species that are less well known and we're sort of hoping for the best."

"My concern would be if we follow the current strategy that is quite radical when it comes to the amount of habitat loss, are we going to see abrupt declines beyond which it's a lot more difficult to come back from, a lot more difficult to recover."

Natural Resources Minister Paul Robichaud and J.D. Irving Ltd. co-chief executive Jim Irving have both stated that "good science" has shown the New Brunswick forest can allow for increased softwood production without harming biodiversity.

The province and industry point out the increased wood allotment will secure jobs in New Brunswick's woodlands and mills.

That argument doesn't wash with Betts.

"We need to break our dependency on low quality forest products - I think that's the only way forward," he said.

"As long as we frame this as a trade off between people who work in the woods … and people that would like to see biodiversity concerned, we're never going to have a win-win situation."

Betts notes that due to climate, New Brunswick trees are slow to grow compared with other places in the world.

"What we have to do in New Brunswick is stop behaving like an entirely resource-based economy and think about alternatives," he said.

"I don't see how we can compete with states and other countries that can grow trees so quickly. We should be shifting the focus from high volume to high quality and perhaps a bit away from our resource-based economy."

Betts compares the situation to the climate change debate, where the ulitimate outcome is not known and informed decisions have to be made on the information that is known.

"We can't have a definitive answer until we've actually run the experiment itself."