The number of charges and warnings issued to help protect wildlife habitat and watercourses in Nova Scotia have dropped significantly over the past 12 years, according to documents obtained by CBC News.
The reason for the drop in charges and warnings in maintaining forest health is being disputed by the Department of Natural Resources and environmentalists.
The Wildlife Habitat and Watercourse Protection (WHWP) regulations came into effect in 2002 and between that time and September 2006, there were 116 warnings and eight charges laid against violators under the regulations.
Between 2007 and 2012, those numbers dropped to 60 warnings and a single charge — nearly half the number of warnings and about one-tenth the number of charges compared to when the regulations first came into effect.
The WHWP regulations are designed to protect three things:
- Trees felled close to watercourses such as rivers, streams and lakes.
- Stands of trees cut down that were supposed to remain protected.
- Important habitat and soil nourishment, making sure pieces of woody debris are scattered evenly over sites where trees have been removed.
Bob Petrie, the director of wildlife for the Department of Natural Resources, said it's possible foresters are simply doing a better job working within the rules.
"We are seeing a number of improvements in these practices and the nature of wildlife management and forest management in a changing world is that we need to keep evolving and updating our practises and learning from what we've done before," said Petrie.
"These regulations have — the trend indicates — allowed us to make substantial improvement in protecting aquatic ecosystems in our rivers and streams as well as providing more habitat for wildlife and we're going to continue to try and enhance what we're doing and learn from what we've done in the past."
Matt Miller, the forestry program co-ordinator with the Ecology Action Centre, said the regulations are not accurate and the government needs to inspect more sites and consider changing those regulations.
"The regulations are not adequate and the lack of compliance with the regulations that do exist call into question — serious question — the department's ability and willingness to protect our forests," he said.
"It's impossible for a moose to live within a clump of 30 trees in the middle of a huge clearcut. They're suited for the boreal forest and they were put together with a complete ignorance of the ecology of our native Acadian forest."
Over the years, only about 30 per cent of the harvest sites surveyed have been in full compliance. The government strives for at least 90 per cent compliance when it comes to regulations. To be compliant, all regulations must be met.
"Our goal is compliance, our goal isn't to do more enforcement. The goal is to have more people follow the regulation, so again it depends on the situation, whether somebody was willfully disregarding the regulation or whether they were trying and just didn't have the necessary knowledge to do everything that we wanted them to do," said Petrie.
"Our response to given situations will be based on the circumstances of the site and that operator and what we learn in our investigation — and that determines what the most appropriate response is."
Some suggest it's time to use summary offense tickets so that companies are fined on the spot for violating the regulations, instead of the current practice of automatically sending the matter through the courts.
Frustration over regulations within DNR
In email correspondence obtained by CBC News through the Access to Information Act, some people inside the Department of Natural Resources have expressed frustration with the existing regulations.
"After some discussion with [DNR forester] Tim O'Brien, we both agree that the time for issuing warnings under the Wildlife Habitat and Watercourse Protection [regulations] is over," wrote Chris Ball, the department's regional enforcement manager in Truro, in an email written to enforcement co-ordinator Brian Mailman.
"All the education and warnings in the world won't correct the actions of the contractors if they choose not to follow the [regulations]
for any reason, especially when there is little chance of penalty resulting from the non-compliance."
Miller said while there has been a downturn in Nova Scotia’s pulp and paper industry over the last few years, the forests are still at risk.
"Unfortunately we have a giant behemoth in Point Tupper, the biomass plant attached to the Port Hawkesbury Paper Mill," said Miller.
"That plant is going to consume upwards to three quarters of a million tonnes of wood every year and potentially even more. Certainly we've had some slack years but there's definitely additional consumptive pressure coming and I would argue that we still have too much pressure on our forest."