Nova Scotia

Forestry workers not ready to quit as Northern Pulp shutdown looms

As the shutdown of Northern Pulp looms, people in Nova Scotia's forestry industry are frantically searching for ways to make their operations viable now and into the future.

Transition team to meet Thursday as industry considers future without major player

Forestry workers in Nova Scotia are facing an uncertain future as Northern Pulp prepares to shut down at the end of the month. (Michael Gorman/CBC)

Greg Watson is trying to remain optimistic.

These days, the manager of North Nova Forest Owners Co-op in Wentworth, N.S., like many people who work in the woods, is trying to get a sense of how the future looks for Nova Scotia's forestry industry as its largest player — Northern Pulp — is weeks away from shutting down.

There remains a lot of uncertainty, but there have been some immediate effects for Watson and his team now that the Pictou County mill is no longer accepting low-grade wood and sawmill byproducts.

Watson's group manages about 30,000 hectares of land for 340 landowners and his team advocates whenever possible for ecologically focused forestry management with an eye to the long term. But with pulpwood prices falling as the mill prepares to close, Watson estimates his current management area has shrunk in half as landowners put off pending harvests and some work simply isn't economically viable.

"It's taken the flexibility out of our operation," he said in an interview.

Watson said based on his conversations with contractors, he thinks a lot of people have between two and three months before they have to start making difficult decisions. By then, there needs to be a solid plan and long-term vision, he said.

Greg Watson is the manager of North Nova Forest Owners Co-op and a member of the province's forestry transition team. (CBC)

What that might look like remains to be seen.

Since Premier Stephen McNeil announced last month that his government would not extend Northern Pulp's use of Boat Harbour to receive effluent beyond the end of this month, a move that effectively spelled the end for the mill, people like Watson and hundreds — if not thousands of others — have been left with more questions than answers.

Although McNeil announced a $50-million transition fund and a team to work on a transition plan, there has been no comment from government officials other than several news releases.

The government has established phone lines where people can ask work-related questions (1-888-315-0110) and get emotional support (1-866-885-6540). Employment service info sessions have been scheduled and the transition team will meet for the first time Thursday. On Tuesday, the team lost a member after Robin Wilber did a round of interviews discussing possible ways to keep Northern Pulp in the province.

In its first public comment since responding to McNeil's decision last month, the company issued a statement to CBC News on Tuesday saying it's been "focused on supporting our employees, developing plans for a safe and environmentally responsible shutdown, and working with the Government of Nova Scotia to understand if there is a future for our operations in the province."

Jeff Bishop is the executive director of Forest Nova Scotia and a member of the province's forestry transition team. (CBC)

While the company said it doesn't want to close the mill and would like to stay, there does not appear to be a clear path that would make it possible.

Jeff Bishop, the executive director of Forest Nova Scotia and a member of the transition team, said right now everyone is looking at their options and trying to figure out what they can or cannot do to remain viable.

While he expects things will become clearer in the coming weeks, Bishop said for the time being sawmill operators are doing everything they can to hold on and delay layoffs.

"I think they're pulling every lever they have at their disposal and finding new markets, if possible, to figure out how they can keep things moving and keep Nova Scotians employed," he said.

Expensive machinery costs

Bishop said the big factor right now for people who work in the woods is whether they own machinery. Even if work is slowing down, the bills for equipment, some of which can cost more than $1 million a piece, will remain as steady as the tides.

"When you have three or four or five pieces of that, they need to be operating. They need to be doing the work that they do [and] that means cutting wood to pay the bills," said Bishop.

"We know folks are struggling to figure out where the next payments for those machines will come from for their business and [asking] is it easier to park it, is it easier to put it up for sale or auction and walk away."

Watson is a member of the transition team.

'I have a lot of people that rely on me'

Given how critical things are, he's hoping everyone involved can come together in a productive and positive way to find a plan that would not only get people through this current downturn, but help things be environmentally and economically sustainable into the future.

"For me, quitting and going home is not an option right now," said Watson. "I have a lot of people that rely on me and I'm not going to do that."

The Northern Pulp mill will cease operations at the end of the month when it is no longer allowed to use Boat Harbour to treat its effluent. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Clinging to positivity at what is unquestionably a difficult time stems in part from a "stubborn" desire to find a way to keep working where he loves, but also because of what he and others with the co-op have tried to develop, said Watson.

North Nova employs anywhere between eight and 20 people depending on the time of year. Many of those people are young, have families and want to remain in their local rural communities. More than ever, Watson is trying to find a way to keep them busy and keep the work flowing.

"I don't want to see that lost. I want to give them hope that we can do something to keep them here," he said.