The New Brunswick government appeared to come down on the side of the biggest mill owners Thursday in the dispute with marketing boards representing woodlot owners.
The issue was raised by Green Party Leader David Coon during question period in the legislature.
"Why has the minister of energy and resource development abdicated his legal responsibility to woodlot owners and failed to enforce his own legislation?" Coon asked.
This was a reference to the practice of J.D. Irving Ltd. and other companies of bypassing the marketing boards. Instead, individual woodlot owners must approach a company or one of its contractors directly if they want to sell wood.
Old days are gone
Minister Rick Doucet appeared to admonish Coon for raising the issue at a time when the province is fighting punitive trade tariffs imposed by the U.S. Commerce Department.
"It's about time we started to stand up for the mills in this province," Doucet said to loud cheers from members of the Liberal caucus.
"Things have changed in the last 30 years."
More than 30 years ago, legislation granted special powers to woodlot marketing boards as a tradeoff for turning management of Crown forests over to the biggest mill operators. The system began to change in the 1990s at the request of industry.
"The market has become extremely competitive," Doucet said. "The mills have got to be very competitive and out in the forests we've got to be competitive at what we do."
JDI won challenge
Earlier this week, an attempt by Sussex-based SNB Forest Products Marketing Board to regain control over wood sales in its region was struck down by the New Brunswick Forest Products Commission.
The decision following an appeal to the commission by J.D. Irving Ltd., AV Group and more than two dozen contractors who do work on behalf of the mill owners.
The Liberals came to power in 2014 just after New Brunswick opened up more Crown land to forest companies — a move some woodlot owners have complained undermined them.
The U.S. Commerce Department has cited increases in the volume of wood from Crown land among its reasons for the anti-dumping tariffs imposed on JDI and other mills, saying private woodlot owners cannot raise prices higher than the stumpage royalties paid by mills for Crown wood.
Suggests link to tariffs
In early November, the U.S. imposed tariffs of 9.9 percent on JDI products, and 21 percent on lumber products from all other New Brunswick producers.
In question period, Coon suggested a reason.
"And you wonder why New Brunswick's mills lost their softwood tariff exemption while Nova Scotia retained it," he said.
"Why doesn't the minister of energy and resource development fix the private wood market so it's fair to woodlot owners?"
In his response, Doucet said the province's forestry sector needs to "dialogue" rather than fight, but he did not speak to any government initiatives to bring woodlot groups, mill owners and government officials together.