Those who've been through an operating review at work - or those who've gone through the ritual of affirming and re-affirming a common interest in change only to find next time around that nothing's changed after all - will find current negotiations for setting up a wood pellet plant in Botwood eerily familiar.

It can be summed up with the saying, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

Newfoundland forest

An aerial view of the boreal forest in Newfoundland. (CBC)

One modification is necessary, though.

Things do change on their own. If they didn't, we'd still be living in caves, nay, we wouldn't exist at all — nothing would, not even amoebas. It's people who tend not to change. So the first part of the saying could be changed to go go something like, "The more people say that things will change …"

For example, it was close to 11 years ago that the provincial government trotted out the Provincial Sustainable Forest Management Strategy, a 77-page document which heralded an entirely new approach to managing the forests.

A great big fibre factory

The old approach had basically been to treat the forests as a fibre factory for the pulp-and-paper and sawmill industries. The new approach promised something quite different. It introduced itself with the name "ecosystem-based management," also known as EBM, presumably because that sounds more technocratic, rolls off the tongue more easily, even saves a bit of ink.

The two approaches are like opposite twins. Traditional forest management counts trees only — the way traditional fisheries management counted only fish, and we all know where that got us.

Ecosystem-based management, on the other hand, is supposed to count everything, the whole kit and kaboodle that makes up a modern forest, including humans and their sundry activities.

Traditional forest management counts trees only — the way traditional fisheries management counted only fish, and we all know where that got us.

There was a lot of skepticism right from the start about how this new approach was going to catch on. And it proved to be justified. The more government forestry officials followed the new protocols, the more they came across as leopards unable to change their spots.

Sociologist Doug House ran into similar resistance to change from entrenched bureaucracy when he was chair of the Economic Recovery Commission in the 1990s.

Some 15 years later, post-doctoral researcher Erin Kelly wrote a study paper (Pathways and challenges to reinventing forestry in Newfoundland, 2012) for Grenfell College's Environmental Policy Institute, in which she declared the same inertia alive and well inside the forestry division of the Department of Natural Resources.

The forestry has undoubtedly changed

What has changed, though, is the forestry itself. Two newsprint mills are gone. The sawmills that depended on them are either gone as well or having a hard time making it on their own.

Yet if Kelly's assessment is accurate, forestry officials continue counting trees and offering them up for harvest even as fewer and fewer enterprises can afford to take them up on it.

This was, of course, the great moment of opportunity for ecosystem-based management with its holistic approach. But recent government responses to the ongoing decline of the traditional forest industry have looked suspiciously like more of the old.

More bailout money for the only surviving paper mill in Corner Brook. A failed, multi-million-dollar attempt to set up a wood pellet plant on the Northern Peninsula. Current negotiations to sign a deal with California-based Rentech for a wood pellet plant in Botwood.

What all three initiatives have in common is the old approach of anchoring the industry with a few large industrial players, whether the paper mills of the past or the pellet plants of the future.

Yet even the push to replace the paper mills with pellet plants appears to lack practical vision. Other Atlantic provinces have started to create domestic markets for locally produced pellets by converting some of their public buildings to burning wood for heat.

Here, the government appears to keep thinking of pellets as the traditional export to distant markets (Rentech, which nurtures ambitions to become the largest wood pellet producer in the world, has a European partner based in Estonia).

Just what the long-term, EBM-based plan for the forestry in this province is, if there is one, is hard to gauge. The government has not been responding to requests for information.

The more things change, the more ... fa la la ...