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VIBERT: A thin response on clearcutting

Jim Vibert
Jim Vibert - SaltWire Network

The Nova Scotia government tried to get on the right side — politically — of forest clearcutting this week and had some initial success with minimal effort.

This is the government that, in its first term, backed away from the provincial natural resource strategy and its plan to reduce clearcutting to about half of the wood taken in the province. Today, clearcutting is used to harvest more than 80 per cent of the wood removed from Nova Scotia forests.

The Liberals felt the strong headwind of public opposition to the esthetic and ecological damage left behind by clearcutting, and last year when the issue became an irritant during the provincial election campaign, Premier Stephen McNeil promised a study.

The study was completed three months ago, and this week the government was happy to borrow the credibility of its author, King’s University president Bill Lahey, on the environment in general, and on ecologically sound forest practices in particular.

Lands and Forestry Minister Iain Rankin said the province accepted the “intent and spirit” of Lahey’s report, which called for a reduction in clearcutting on Crown land from the current 65 per cent of the harvest down to about 25 per cent.

Rankin wouldn’t commit to a quantitative goal and listed among the government’s priorities a process to identify appropriate areas for high production forestry (clearcutting) on Crown land.

Nova Scotians who expect, or hope, to see a noticeable decline in clearcutting in the woods of the province are likely to be disappointed.

That’s because at least 70 per cent of the wood harvested in Nova Scotia will still be by clearcut. That’s Lahey’s estimate based on the province achieving the reduction he proposed but the government sidestepped, and forestry practices remain unaltered on private woodland.

The Crown owns just 30 per cent of the province’s forest, and while Lahey was circumspect about proposing forestry practices on private land, he was clear that private participation is essential to achieve the objective of protecting ecosystems and biodiversity in Nova Scotia forests.

In accepting his report, the government undertook only to study and consider Lahey’s proposals to promote more ecologically sound forestry practices on privately owned land.

Lahey recommended the province enforce the Nova Scotia Endangered Species Act “fully and rigorously” on private land, which is not currently the case; that it prohibit whole-tree harvesting from clearcuts on private land; and that “industrial” forest land — land owned by mills and other wood processors — be brought under ecologically sound management.

The government was silent on those proposals, nor did it comment on the idea that woodlot owners should be able to earn credit and revenue by preserving their carbon-reducing woodlots.

Earlier this year, when the province announced its cap-and-trade plan to reduce carbon emissions in the province, it gave away carbon credits to the province’s biggest polluters but the value of the forests in absorbing atmospheric carbon received no consideration.

That’s an opportunity missed. Private landowners, particularly those with older stands of large trees, would have an economic incentive to preserve those stands if they were given credit for the carbon stored or sequestered in their woods, and were permitted to trade those credits in the cap-and-trade marketplace.

But, after three months with Lahey’s voluminous report, the government limited itself to a few initial steps in the direction of ecologically sound forestry, and then only on Crown land.

While environmentalists, like Ray Plourde of the Ecology Action Centre, gave the government the benefit of the doubt this week, they warned that they will be watching to ensure the direction the government espoused by accepting the report translates into tangible action to protect Nova Scotia’s woodland eco-systems.

Even Bill Lahey was somewhat taken aback by the government’s thin response to his report and its 160-plus conclusions and 45 recommendations. The response required fewer than four pages.

Minister Rankin contended the province could further the ecological objective of Lahey’s report, while “growing the forestry sector.” That comment is a telling insight into the government’s view of the environment.

They are all for protecting it, as long as that doesn’t stand in the way of someone making money.

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