Annual forest industry meeting contemplates life after Northern Pulp
'We're looking to the future, forgetting about what's behind us,' says worker in forestry industry
What a difference a year makes.
One year ago, Andrew West and other members of the province's forestry industry gathered for the Forest Nova Scotia annual general meeting hoping for the continued and long-term presence of Northern Pulp, the industry's top player.
Less than two weeks after the Pictou County mill shut down, West, a forest engineer with H. C. Haynes, said uncertainty now pervades the industry.
"We really don't know what the future holds," he said on Tuesday, the first day of this year's two-day meeting.
"We're looking to the future, forgetting about what's behind us, but we don't know the answers."
Answers won't be easy to come by.
The loss of Northern Pulp, which was forced to shut down when it was unable to get a permit to build a new effluent treatment facility, has removed major markets for the industry. There is no longer a long-term home for many companies' low-grade wood or the byproducts from sawmills. The mill used to buy about 700,000 tonnes of woodchips from sawmills each year.
Robin Wilber, president of Elmsdale Lumber Company, said there was a thought that at the end of January if Northern Pulp shut down, so would all the sawmills. Although that isn't what happened, Wilber said there isn't a lot of breathing room right now.
"This is a slow death, not something that's going to happen quickly," he said.
"It took years, decades, to build markets for the value-added byproducts from sawmills at a reasonable price."
Wilber said all the sawmills are working on plans to find homes for their byproducts and many of those plans are different from each other.
"And that's probably a good thing, because we'll be able to find out over time what works [and] what doesn't work. This is going to be a very long story," he said.
"This isn't going to happen over the next week or month or six months — this is going to be over the next number of years."
In response to the mill shutting down, the province launched a transition team to work on answers and a $50-million fund to bankroll those efforts. (Wilber was initially a member of that team, but was removed following comments about finding a way to keep Northern Pulp open.)
Although much of the focus since the mill's shutdown has been on job losses and ways to keep people in the sector working or transition them to something else, Wilber said the biggest story is the potential damage to the forests.
If people can't afford to work the woods because landowners' values are plunging and that problem persists, the forests cannot be maintained, which in turn affects their health because removing low-grade wood helps them grow. There is a belief among some people in the industry that the true toll of the closure won't be felt until after road closures happen, a time when work typically becomes scarce anyway. The fear this time is when roads eventually reopen, there might not be work for people to return to.
Pictou County job fair
On the same day several hundred people were gathering in Halifax for the conference, a company from Ontario was holding a job fair in Pictou County in search of a variety of industry professionals.
West said he knows a few contractors have left for Ontario since Premier Stephen McNeil's announcement that he would uphold the deadline in the Boat Harbour Act, but West isn't expecting a mass exodus just yet.
"By and large, I think we're all survivors in this business and we're gonna slug it out and go for the long run and go into the future," he said.
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