The Liberals mustered a narrow majority in the May 30, 2017 election, so they will again be in the driver’s seat.
My immediate question: who will be the Minister of Natural Resources? The answer will provide the first sign of where forests and forestry could be headed in Nova Scotia and whether the Liberals’ commitment to an independent review is genuine. If Lloyd Hines, the Minister of Natural Resources for most of the Liberals’ first term, is reappointed, it will be difficult to take that commitment seriously. Here’s why.Hines narrowly regained his seat in Guysborough Co but wasted no time in expressing his view of what’s up in Natural Resources: “I think we are poised to do exactly what we’re saying and to unleash the province’s natural value and unlock that value for Nova Scotians.” Hines did not mention the Liberals’ commitment to hold off critical decisions until an independent review of forestry is conducted and why such a review was considered necessary.
It was under Hines’ watch that the Liberals formally abandoned the goal coming out of the 2011-2010 Natural Resources Strategy to reduce clearcutting to 50% of all harvests on Crown land by 2016. Not that the former NDP government did any better: they shifted their first Minister of Natural Resources out of that portfolio after he boldly announced that forestry would change in Nova Scotia, and then NSDNR formulated a definition of clearcutting that allowed a lot of what are clearly clearcuts to be counted as non-clearcuts. (View Perspectives – Restoring the Health of Nova Scotia’s Forests .) Under Hines’ leadership and the ingenuity of the upper vanguard in NSDNR, the doublespeak went a step further: in the five year review of the 2011-2010 Natural Resources Strategy released in August of 2016 it was announced that a 50% target was no longer necessary because “we have now developed tools that ensure that all harvest treatments are aligned with the nature-based requirements of Nova Scotia’s lands”. (View NSDNR’s nature-based forestry.)
Hines talks about SW Nova Scotia as our fibre basket and about the need to “to find and create new business to keep use of this market”. The new businesses Hines has in mind to make use of our fibre basket are clearly biofuels and the like, which the Dexter NDP (2010-2014) and then the McNeil Liberal governments (2014-2017) have been sinking bucks into via a “forestry innovation hub” or related entities, often hand in hand with Emera and federal partners. It’s sounds like a “made in Nova Scotia innovation” but it isn’t (e.g., view Bioeconomy proponents welcome SuperCluster program, May 29 in Canadian Biomass); N.S. is just being milked to help drive it. Regardless, it is a High Volume/Low Value (cheap wood) approach that places little value in maintaining older forests, and sees only added expense in the selection management needed to maintain our native mixed, multi-aged Acadian forest AND a viable forest economy based on high value trees and forests. (Less than 10% of Crown forestry lands are currently under selection management.)
Hines looks at forests as analagous to vegetable production in a garden only on a longer time frame and considers current practices to be sustainable: “If you look at the regeneration and silviculture work going on, we’re satisfied we’re replanting and managing at a rate that is sustainable in terms of our total allowable cut”. To look at sustainability only in the context of total allowable cut is an outmoded perspective, but is often heard in N.S. because when the wider ecosystem perspective* is considered, Nova Scotia’s forests and higher value timber industry are clearly not sustainable. But even NSDNR’s own, peer reviewed research on the nutrient supply casts doubt on sustainability of even-aged management/short rotation forestry over much of Nova Scotia – research that has not yet been highlighted by NSDNR in the public domain or incorporated into their sustainability assessments.
*Canada moved away from the view of forestry as simple production systems in the 1990s. It was recognized that forests need to be managed for multiple values, and that “sustainability” has to embrace more than just the annual allowable cut. NSDNR has adopted some of the tools of this approach, and uses the language but often reverts to defining sustainability only in terms of allowable cut.
In short, Lloyd Hines did not exhibit a nuanced understanding of forests and forestry while Minister of Natural Resources in the last government. Rather, he was a champion of same-old same-old which if continued will see ever poorer, more depauperate forests and a continuing decline of the forest economy while the big players walk away with their pockets full.
There is some evidence that while Hines was not responsive to widely expressed concerns about clearcutting, others in the Liberal government, including the Premier heard those concerns and took some steps to address them. Some examples:
– The 24/7 requirement for operation of the Port Hawkesbury biomass plant was dropped in April, 2016.
– Julie Towers, with a background in wildlife biology and formerly Deputy Minister and CEO of Aboriginal Affairs Affairs, was appointed Deputy Minister of Natural Resources effective Dec 12, 2016 bringing some needed balance into the upper echelons of NSDNR. Also, Alan Eddy one of the “Company Men” who had been associate deputy minister of NSDNR was transferred to another department.
In 2017, the Premier began to receive many complaints about clearcutting from constituents in own riding, and the Annapolis Co. Council unanimously approved a motion to request an exclusion from the Anticipated WestFor agreement for one year “so that council and staff can review the agreement and make recommendations”.
This seemed to shake things up a bit, and in the pre-election budget speech on April 27 it was announced that “Government will also appoint an independent expert to review our forestry practices to ensure we strike the right balance for our forests. This review will get underway as soon as possible, starting first in the western region. No future long-term timber harvesting licences will be awarded on crown land until the work is complete”.
That commitment was reiterated on May 8 when the Liberals released their environmental platform. In addition, the Liberals committed to “Introducing a new Biodiversity Act and launching a Biodiversity Council”. (The 2016 Auditor General’s Report had been highly critical of NSDNR for giving insufficient attention to protection of habitat for endangered species.)
So now the election has passed, the Liberals got their majority and we await (i) an announcement of who will be the Minister of Natural Resources, and (ii) details on the nature of the “thorough and independent review of our current forestry practices”.
The main criticism of this as yet-to-be-defined process has been why the government wouldn’t simply adopt the recommendations coming out the 2011 Natural Resources Strategy Report (The Path We Share).
Some of the comments that came from McNeil during the election campaign are encouraging:
McNeil said it’s worth doing more work for a variety of reasons, including a lack of clarity on the definition of clear cutting and ensuring a balance between supporting industry jobs and protecting the environment. “Some people feel that balance has not been struck,” he said. “And that’s why we’re going outside looking for some complete independent advice, quite frankly, away from our department and away from industry and away from community.” – CBC May 10, 2017
Such words were not expressed by Lloyd Hines. I was particularly encouraged by the Premier’s apparent recognition that he may not have been getting the best or most objective advice from “our department” and his reference to the definition of clearcutting. There is a lot more about the science of forestry and its application in Nova Scotia that the Premier has heard about over the last year and that should receive scrutiny in an independent review.
On the other hand, the Premier is reported to have said that the review “shouldn’t take any more than a short period of time… “We will know by September.” That sounds a bit too much like the fix is in. Before announcing the independent review, the government had already delayed signing signing a 10-year Forest Utilization Licence Agreement (FULA) with WestFor because of ongoing negotiations with Mi’kmaq leaders and extended the existing interim WestFor licence to Sept. Thus the Premier’s reference to September seems to reflect a prior agenda rather than an assessment of how long a thorough and independent review would take.
Nevertheless, I remain hopeful. That’s in part because the Premier and some fellow Liberals have shown some sensitivity to forestry issues and in part because I know there are a lot of Nova Scotians who will not accept same-old same-old and will be following the new government’s actions very closely, beginning with the announcement of who will be Minister of Natural Resources.
I am betting it won’t be Lloyd Hines.