Nova Scotia long-term Crown timber harvest leases still on hold

The province of Nova Scotia says it will maintain a moratorium on long-term leases for timber harvesting on Crown lands until it "digests" a new forest practices review.

Forest industry awaits premier's reaction to forest practices review

Timber harvesting outside New Ross in Lunenburg County. (CBC)

Nova Scotia will maintain a moratorium on long-term leases for timber harvesting on Crown lands until it "digests" a new forest practices review.

The report from University of King's College president Bill Lahey calls for a drastic reduction in harvesting on Crown land and a shift to more cutting on private woodlots.

The recommendation poses tough questions for the Liberal government.

It ordered the review in part after persistent complaints that increased harvesting on Crown land in western Nova Scotia drove down demand for wood from private woodlots.

On Thursday, Premier Stephen McNeil and Lands and Forestry Minister Iain Rankin sidestepped any commitment to reduce harvesting on lands owned by the province.

Premier Stephen McNeil would not commit to reducing forest harvesting on Crown land. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

Rankin said the freeze on long-term leases to harvest on Crown land will stay for now.

"Until we are fully able to digest the report and each recommendation we are not prepared to sign any long-term leases until we actually consider all those recommendations," Rankin said.

McNeil said an initial response will be delivered this fall.

The most recent Crown lease for Pictou-based Northern Pulp expired in July and was renewed for one year.

Complaints rejected

Lahey rejected the claim that work on private woodlots in western Nova Scotia dried up after harvest leases on former Bowater Mersey Paper Mill lands were awarded to a consortium of 13 sawmills called WestFor. 

The 225,000 hectares of woodlands were bought by the province in 2012 for more than $100-million.​​ Lahey said the drop in work felt at private woodlots was due to natural market fluctuations.

"I've come to the conclusion that cause and effect is not accurate," Lahey said.

Lands and Forestry Minister Iain Rankin said on Aug. 23 the freeze on long-term leases for harvesting timber on Crown land will remain in place for now, until the government goes over the new forest practices review. (Craig Paisley/CBC)

The level of harvesting on private woodlots, he said, remained steady before and after the Bowater sale.

"The demand that currently exists for private wood is roughly of the same proportion to the wood coming off Crown land that would have been harvested off Bowater."

However Lahey concluded harvesting on Crown land should be drastically reduced for ecological reasons. Sixty-five per cent of the harvest is currently clear cut. 

"If we continue on the path we are on we are headed to a significantly degraded forest," he said. 

Softened sting for private woodlots

Lahey's ultimate recommendation — to reduce Crown harvesting — softened the sting for New Ross forest contractor Colin Hughes, who has complained about the WestFor leases.

He said Lahey misread the figures, arguing the percentage of harvesting on private lands may have stayed steady but it involved much less work because mills were getting their supply from Crown land.

"This is a good, positive review but there are some parts of it I question," Hughes said from his New Ross office.

He said the private woodlot market dip was reflected across Nova Scotia.

New Ross forest contractor Colin Hughes has concerns about the WestFor leases. (CBC)

Citing the province's own buyers' data, he said in 2016 and 2017 the harvest on private woodlands dropped by more than 400,000 cubic metres of wood.

He said one big reason was the WestFor harvest on Crown land.

"That is money that was taken right out of small communities like this one," he said.

Hughes said the McNeil government made the right decision by putting the brakes on leases to WestFor, which resulted in a turnaround for private woodlots' operations in 2018.

WestFor studying report

The WestFor consortium says its member mills are studying Lahey's report and its 45 recommendations.

"We're still trying to digest what each one of the potential recommendations could mean to the forest products business and the land we manage and operate on both the shareholder company mills and WestFor itself," said WestFor general manager Marcus Zwicker.

Zwicker added that WestFor is waiting to see how the McNeil government responds to the report. 

"Premier McNeil, the report has been handed to him. He can choose to do what he wants with it, enact which recommendation he wants."

About the Author

Paul Withers

Reporter

Paul Withers is an award-winning journalist whose career started in the 1970s as a cartoonist. He has been covering Nova Scotia politics for more than 20 years.