A Progressive Conservative MLA says he may rethink his support for the PC forestry plan he voted for in 2014 if there isn't progress on a new mill in his riding.
Jake Stewart says he's concerned that construction on a new J.D. Irving Ltd. mill in Doaktown has been pushed back to this fall and hinges on what he calls "market conditions."
"If the Doaktown mill doesn't go ahead, I will certainly regret voting for it," he said of the forestry plan unveiled by the PC government of David Alward in 2014.
"You vote with your party," Stewart told CBC News in an interview.
"That's the system we have. But for me, a free vote would have been better on that, if this mill doesn't go forward."
The promise of a new $15-million Irving sawmill in Doaktown "was the reason that I supported the forestry plan, and it was difficult for me," he said.
"It would have been difficult for others."
Stewart said as a fisherman on the Miramichi, he's concerned about the impact of the forestry plan's increased logging quotas on streams and brooks.
"When I voted for the forestry plan, it wasn't with a full embrace," he said.
"My primary reason for supporting that was because of what it meant for the Village of Doaktown."
New mill will replace aging facility
Originally, Irving said construction in Doaktown would being in the spring of 2015. The new mill will replace the company's aging sawmill in the village.
The company says construction will generate 78 jobs, and 40 more jobs will be created in woodlands operations that support the mill.
But last July, Irving announced construction of the mill would be delayed until this year while the company upgraded its Chipman mill.
The later date for Doaktown "will allow us to balance our resources for this year and next, as well as provide our engineering team the time needed to finalize and procure equipment to support construction of an efficient mill," Irving said in the July 2015 release.
In another press release last week, Irving said the Doaktown mill "is being engineered and, subject to market conditions, construction will begin this fall."
Mary Keith, J.D. Irving's vice-president of communications, has not responded to repeated requests for more precise details.
Doaktown Mayor Bev Gaston says company officials met with him last fall to explain the delays and he was reassured.
"When Jim Irving comes and makes a statement, you can take it to the bank," he said.
"I see no reason not to."
Gaston said there are indications Irving is preparing for work on the new sawmill later this year.
Stewart says he's concerned that Doaktown "appears to be the only mill that's contingent on market conditions."
Irving's Feb. 12 press release says the company has met the terms of its agreement with the Alward government to spend more on tree-planting, upgrade its pulp mill in Saint John, and upgrade other mills and facilities, including in Chipman, Sussex, and northern New Brunswick.
Glut of wood
Earlier this month, Natural Resources Minister Denis Landry said the government was forecasting a drop in forestry royalties of $11 million in the coming year because of a glut of wood on the market.
Demand in the United States was not rebounding as fast as expected, Landry said.
Asked at the time if that would affect mill expansions predicted under the PC forestry plan, Landry said he wasn't aware of any but "you never know in the future what could happen."
Irving's 2014 contract with the province under the plan allows exceptions to the company's investment obligations, including "a suspension of Irving's operations wholly or partially as a result of market conditions for its products or other similar circumstances."
Stewart says if other mill investments could go ahead in the same market conditions, he's puzzled why it hasn't happened in Doaktown.
"If I'm reading it incorrectly, I'm looking for someone to tell me that," he said.
'It does upset me'
Stewart is a second-term PC MLA whose riding runs from the Boiestown area along the Miramichi River and then to the Northumberland Strait.
He says he accepts that as a party member, "there are often things you vote for where you plug your nose."
And he said the forestry plan he supported has yielded good results elsewhere.
"So it does upset me that this project seems to be lagging a bit," he said.
A new mill would underscore Irving's long-term commitment to Doaktown, he said.
"If construction starts before this time next year, everybody will forget about it, and people will move on with their lives and be thankful the project will go forward," he said.
"But I would like to see more information on that project."
He said he's getting a lot of phone calls from constituents who are "upset enough to begin with" about how the province manages Crown forest land.
"The last thing they need and we need is for this mill to not go ahead."