Liberals will maintain Crown wood allocations Tories gave to big companies

The governing Liberals plan to maintain the controversial timber allocations given to New Brunswick forestry companies by the previous Progressive Conservative government, Department of Energy and Resource Development Minister Rick Doucet announced Tuesday.

New forest management strategy will add 150,000 hectares of Crown land to forest conservation areas

The forestry sector employs more than 24,000 people in New Brunswick, according to the government. (Canadian Press)

The governing Liberals plan to maintain the controversial Crown land timber allocations given to New Brunswick's big forestry companies by the previous Progressive Conservative government, Department of Energy and Resource Development Minister Rick Doucet announced Tuesday.

But the government plans to add 150,000 hectares, or 1,500 square kilometres, to Crown conservation areas over the next five years as part of the province's new forest management strategy, he said in Saint John.

Doucet did not provide any specifics as to how both goals will be achieved.

"The only way we're going to get there is we've got to dialogue," he said. "We have to be continuing to talk to each other."

The government said the review included discussions with "dozens of groups and individuals," including environmentalists, industry representatives, private woodlot owners and biologists.

Energy and Resource Development Minister Rick Doucet said he believes the same type of dialogue and working together used in the review can also solve problems between private woodlot marketing boards and companies that are now bypassing them through the use of 'direct contracts.' (Connell Smith/CBC)

But several stakeholders told CBC News they were not consulted.

Other criticisms from big and small companies, environmentalists and First Nations alike had to do with the lack of details, not moving fast enough to protect the environment, and the impact on Aboriginal and treaty rights.

The new strategy comes just weeks before the provincial election scheduled for Sept. 24. It is based on the department's review of the David Alward government's 2014 forest management strategy, as promised by Brian Gallant and his Liberals in their 2014 election platform.

Jason Limongelli, vice-president of woodlands for J.D. Irving Ltd., the province's largest forestry company, said Tuesday's announcement came as a surprise and is "concerning in the absence of any consultation." 

"In addition to the environment, we urge government to undertake a fact-based review to carefully consider the impacts on people, businesses and communities across New Brunswick that depend on this sector," he said in an emailed statement.

Need competitive, growing supply

JDI has invested more than $450 million in modernizing its mills and other operations and building the skills of its workforce since 2014.

"These and future investments depend on a competitive and growing wood supply," Limongelli said, declining further comment until the company understands how the government intends to achieve its goal.

The Alward government's 2014 forest management strategy, which was also released shortly before a provincial election, was also met with condemnation.

The Liberals waited too long to reinstate the conservation forest. Much of the important old forest has already been clear cut or will be in the next [five] years. -  David Coon, Green Party leader

That plan boosted the amount of softwood that industrial forest operations could cut on Crown land annually by 20 per cent, or 660,000 cubic metres, by reducing the amount of Crown land that was off-limits to them, such as old growth forest and deer wintering habitat, to 23 per cent from the traditional level of 30 per cent.

Graham Forbes, a forestry professor at the University of New Brunswick, referred to it as "an abject fail" at the time. He was one of 184 academics who had called on the Alward government to halt implementation of the plan.

Roberta Clowater, the executive director of the New Brunswick chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, had described the Tory plan as "really regressive" and said she didn't believe the forest eco-system would be able to sustain the increased pressure on public land.

Doucet told reporters Tuesday that adding 150,000 hectares will bring the conservation levels back up to about 28 per cent.

The location of the 150,000 hectares has yet to be identified.

Clowater said the new plan is an improvement, noting long-term conservation of biodiversity has been identified as a priority.

Other issues identified as needing improvement include:

  • Increasing transparency and accountability when it comes to Crown land management.
  • Growing a healthy and productive forest.
  • Respecting the rights and developing the interests of First Nations.
  • Creating a vibrant and competitive forest sector.

"The question we have," said Clowater, "is who is going to be involved in making those decisions and can we speed up the timeline a little bit?

"Over the last five years there's been a lot of cutting in many of those areas, so we're waiting to see the details about how and where they're going to add that conservation forest back into the system, and also we're wondering what level of protection they're going to give to those forests."

Green Party Leader David Coon contends it's already too late.

"Unfortunately, the horse has already left the barn," he tweeted.

"The Liberals waited too long to reinstate the conservation forest. Much of the important old forest has already been clear cut or will be in the next [five] years."

'Further action' possible

 The Mi'gmaq Chiefs of New Brunswick said the group was not adequately consulted during the review and is "still deeply concerned" about the impacts the forest strategy and forest agreements will have on their treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather, as well as on the health of New Brunswick's forests.

The chiefs contend the government failed to address their concerns about a clause in the agreements, which they say gives licence-holders a veto over forest management practices.

"This is something that should be worrisome to all New Brunswickers, the chiefs said in an emailed statement.

"The practice of giving too much power, access and, essentially subsidies, to corporate interests has to be reviewed."

The chiefs said they will continue to speak with their communities and others in the forest sector and "look at what further action will need to be taken."

'Devil will be in the details'

Mike Legere, executive director of Forest NB, an industry organization that does not include J.D. Irving, said it's too soon to comment on what the impact on the sector will be.

"The devil will be in the details," he said.

Putting 150,000 hectares "back into conservation is a change, make no mistake about that. … Anytime you put additional land into conservation, that is a constraint."

Legere did say industry has followed through on its 2014 pledge to make investments, based on the increased allocation.

"We've had employment created, we've had over $750 million in investment, there's been additional purchase of private wood. Those things have been delivered on and I think anything that changes the formula here has to be looked at closely."

Doucet said $500 million of investment has taken place with another $400 million expected.

Not much to show for 3 years of review

William Richards, chair of the Southern New Brunswick Forest Products Marketing Board, said he is "disappointed."

"It sounds a little bit weak to take three years to do a review. And then essentially no change."

He hoped to see more support for the approximately 4,000 private woodlot owners the group represents, which comprises 30 per cent of the forested land in New Brunswick, he said.

"They have said essentially they are going to respect the contracts which were signed by the Alward government with industry and that is for the amount of wood supply which can be taken off Crown land," Richards said.

"So that same supply is going to be there tomorrow as it is today, only taken off a smaller portion of land. It calls into question the long-term management plan: Is it really sustainable?"

Could help trade talks

Treasury Board president Roger Melanson, who is also the minister responsible for trade policy, expects some of the changes to the strategy will address concerns raised by the United States government during negotiations to restore New Brunswick's exemption from softwood lumber tariffs.

The government is working hard to "achieve the best possible outcome" in its negotiations with the United States on softwood lumber tariffs, Melanson said in a statement.

The changes "are important to these talks and put us in an even better position," he said.

Further changes will be considered, if necessary, to help resolve the trade issue, the government release said.

The forestry industry is a vital component of the province's economy, employing more than 24,000 people, said Doucet.

"We need to ensure it is sustainable."

The new forest management strategy was scheduled to be announced last Friday in Fredericton, but the news conference was cancelled after the shooting that claimed the lives of two city police officers and two civilians.

With files from Connell Smith

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