A University of New Brunswick historian says the province could be witnessing the collapse of its marketing board system for private woodlots.
William Parenteau, who has long watched New Brunswick forest policy, says any control marketing boards had in their industry is being lost.
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Much is at stake, he said, in the parallel challenges J.D. Irving Ltd. and other industry players have launched in court and through the province's Forest Products Commission against the SNB Co-operative, based in the Sussex area, and its marketing board.
"The system's been diminished over the last 20 years," Parenteau said. "So this would be, maybe a final blow."
'There will be a few winners and a lot of losers in that process.' - William Parenteau, UNB historian
"The marketing board may be there in name, but if [forestry companies] are able to do an end-run around it, and then favour certain larger contractors, what you'll probably see is a consolidation of smaller woodlots. There will be a few winners and a lot of losers in that process."
Parenteau said the issue is about wood prices and who controls those prices.
Toll on rural communities
And it is already contributing to the "emptying out" of rural communities, he said.
Forest product sales are regulated in New Brunswick, and woodlot marketing boards were granted authority over sales in their respective geographic territories in 1982.
The system was intended to give individual woodlot owners more collective clout in negotiating sales to mills.
J.D. Irving stopped buying wood from the southern New Brunswick board in 2012 and has been contracting wood purchases directly from private woodlot owners or from a group of contractors who cut wood on private land.
Those relationships are already developing roots. In an affidavit filed with the court, Irving vice-president Jason Limongelli said 55 percent of the company's total private wood purchases in the province (326,000 cubic metres in 2015) were made "in the SNB board area."
A group of contractors and woodlot owners from SNB's territory have joined JDI in the Forest Products Commission challenge.
Two woodlot owners managed to get elected to SNB's 36-member board with the express purpose of reversing attempts by the board to regain control over wood sales.
The continuing legal battles are putting a financial strain on the non-profit board, which lacks J. D. Irving's legal and financial resources.
Ruling a setback
On Monday, a judge in Saint John dismissed an application by the board and its co-operative that attempted to convert a lawsuit launched against the groups by J.D. Irving into a judicial review, a less costly process more akin to an appeal than a trial.
Financial statements issued to marketing board members after the year ending April 1 show the non-profit spent $92,000 fighting the Irving legal action through the courts and JDI, AV Nackawic and others before the Forest Products Commission.
While the commission hearing took place Aug. 9 and 10, the Court of Queen's Bench trial has yet to take place.
Appeals are a strong possibility in the case of both the coming commission ruling and the eventual court trial.
A spokesperson for J.D. Irving did not respond to two CBC requests for the company's position on the role of forest products marketing boards.