Birds nests versus industrial forestry in Nova Scotia & what the Independent Review can do for us

Northern Parula and Nova Scotia nest built from old-man’s-beard lichen. These are birds of mature forests. “Selective harvesting [not clearcutting] can be carried out, but should be outside the breeding season to cause the least impacts to bird populations” says Donna Crossland in Don’t let the music stop. Parula pic by Don Pancamo.

Two items in the forestry related news for Nova Scotia last week illustrate the quandary we are in when it comes to figuring out ‘what to do about forestry in Nova Scotia’.

First was an article about the impacts of clearcutting on forest-nesting birds. The reduction in recruited adults into the population each year due to clearcutting is estimated as about 50,000 birds; in addition “the loss of habitat could have long-term impacts on bird populations”. Environmentalist Neal Livingston maintains that “the negative effects on bird life from forestry contravenes Nova Scotia’s commitments under the Migratory Birds Conventions Act”. Indeed, the 2010 report by Bancroft and Crossland on Restoring the Health of Nova Scotia Forests called for increased protection for breeding bird habitats especially during the May/June breeding season.”

In response to journalist John McPhee’s request for comment, DNR spokesperson Bruce Nunn said that

Bird populations and habitat are impacted by many human activities on the landscape and forestry is not among the most significant source of impacts” compared to cat predation, housing and road development, and vehicle collisions.

Of course more than birds are affected by clearcutting. Soren Bondrup-Nielsen describes the displaced wildlife that that we increasingly see in urban areas and in out veterinary hospitals as “clearcut refugees“.

View Environmentalists worried about potential forestry-related nest loss.
By John McPhee for the Chronicle Herald, Jan 3, 2018

The second item is an op-ed commentary by Earle Miller, COMMENTARY: Anatomy of Nova Scotia’s value-added forest industry (Chronicle Herald Jan 4, 2018), in which he lays out the many different products of the industry, from cutting boards and lumber to pallets and pulp. He then describes how they are tightly interwoven:

Municipalities, the province, sawmills, woodlot owners, harvesting and trucking contractors rely heavily on the continued operation of both Port Hawkesbury Paper and Northern Pulp. The Nova Scotia industry is truly integrated and the demise of one would hugely affect the survival of the rest.

E.M. notes the threats to the survival of Port Hawkesbury Paper and Northern Pulp and the need to continuously adapt: ”Whether it is biofuels or nanocrystal technology, we need to develop products that use all grades of fibre, can compete globally without subsidies, and be environmentally acceptable.”

Leaving aside Earle Miller’s claim that the decline of furniture manufacture in Nova Scotia is attributable to our windy environment and not enough red pine and Bruce Nunn’s dismissal of clearcutting as a significant cause of nesting bird mortality, it is probably true both that clearcutting has significant negative effects on wildlife, and that if the amount of clearcutting were substantially reduced tomorrow, it would have fairly devastating effects on the forest industry as we know it.

Hence the quandary, “a state of perplexity or uncertainty over what to do in a difficult situation”. We seem to be in the position of having to make a choice between wildlife (and with it a lot of other “environmental services”) and the continuance of the forest industry as we know it.

How we arrived at such a predicament was well described by Gary Saunders (COMMENTARY: Stop mourning yesterday’s forests, CH Dec 14, 2017). Basically clearcutting begets clearcutting. We kicked off that cycle on a massive scale back in the Stanfield era and transformed much of NS forests from mixed multi-aged Acadian forest that supported a whole suite of wildlife including those preferring earlier successional and those preferring late successional habitats, to much greater representation of earlier successional habitats. That shift continues today, reinforced by the efficiencies of industrialization and globalization that Earle Miller talks about.

As Saunders noted, it is not easy to reverse this sequence. At least it is not easy in human terms. If we simply left nature to do its own thing, perhaps in 100-200 years most of those even-aged systems would have begun to reassemble as mixed, multiaged Acadian forest that supports a wid range of spoes – and adapt to climate change at the same time, and take up a good chunk if the carbon that’s causing a lot of our problems.

That seems to be a choice we can’t accept although our grandchildren’s grandchildren and a few tens of thousands of other species would probably wish we could.

So can we make some sort of compromise between Leave-it-all-alone and All-is-OK-the-way-it-is by applying all of the tools of conservation science and of forestry science and technology to minimize the damage to nature and minimize the impacts of increased restrictions on forestry practices on the forest economy, while accepting there will be losses on both sides?

The Natural Resources Strategy of 2010/11 recognized the losses that would be evident on the nature side if there were not significant changes in forestry practices, and set us on a track to make those compromises. The key element of the compromise was a 50% reduction in clearcutting/even-aged management over 5 years. Not 100% reduction which was the compromise on the conservation side and not 0% reduction which was the compromise on the Industrial forestry side. The compromise was a 50-50 split.*

The strategy had widespread support amongst the public but not from industrial forestry. They kicked off their back-door processes, amongst them the critique by Maine forest prof Robert Wagner commissioned by Forest Nova Scotia. The NDP government quickly backed off from its initial commitments to reduce clearcutting in Nova Scotia, and then we saw the “company men” put firmly in charge of NSDNR.

NSDNR forestry science staff also conveniently redefined “clearcutting” so that the numbers looked much better** and introduced highly technical protocols for approving harvests on Crown land that they claimed were “science based”. Few people had both the technical forestry expertise and the academic understanding of complex landscape/forest ecology issues required to evaluate that claim and those that did and spoke up were simply ignored.

So confident was NSDNR/Minister Hines of how good a job they were doing that in August of 2016 – the year when we were to have met our goal of reducing clearcutting by 50% – NSDNR/the government-of-the-day dropped the 50% goal altogether.

Five years ago, when we first released our strategy, we committed to some actions around clearcutting, whole-tree harvesting, and other forestry practices. Those commitments were based on our best information and intentions at the time. But times have changed. We’ve learned more. We now have a better understanding of what it means to take an ecosystem-based, landscape-scale approach to land management.

In the strategy, for example, we committed to reducing clearcutting to no more than 50 per cent and to revisit the annual allowable cut (AAC). We understand now that the decision to clearcut (or not) has to be made in a larger context. In some areas, clearcutting will not have an impact on the total health of the forest — it may even improve it. In others, clearcutting could have a negative impact. We have now developed tools that ensure that all harvest treatments are aligned with the nature-based requirements of Nova Scotia’s lands.
Goal 13 in the five-year Progress Report on the 2011-2020 Natural Resources Strategy

The message that “all harvest treatments are aligned with the nature-based requirements of Nova Scotia’s lands” was one industry wanted to hear and many people including our political leaders believed, but was simply not true.***

So the day of reckoning was put off but it didn’t go away. Barely 8 months later, the Annapolis County council (in the Premier’s own riding_ requested an out from the WestFor agreement, and conflicts arose between smaller and larger operators over WestFor. Then there were protests about clearcutting from the tourist industry, the forest funeral… and more.

And so now we have the “Independent Review” of 2017/2018 that is supposed to sort it all out once again. It’s final report is scheduled for Feb 28, 2018, now less than two months away.

What can we expect of it?

I am expecting that the learned group will propose some type of compromise between the wishes of the “two sides”.

What’s critical in my view is that the scientific justification for whatever solutions or recommendations they might propose is based on critical use of science and not the mis-use or ignoring of rigorous, peer reviewed science or the use of questionable non-peer reviewed science that has characterized DNR’s science in recent years; likewise, that any economic justification for particular recommendations stands up to scrutiny and is not based on hype.

Maybe there will be bitter pills that have to be swallowed by both sides, but sugar-coating them with platitudes will not help; we need to know exactly what pills we might be asked to take, and why, and given access to all of the relevant documents. If the Independent Review does its job as professionally and objectively as Jim Lahey assured me it will, the red flags notwithstanding, the pill may just be worth taking.

*The 50% figure was also rationalized on the basis that “an ecosystem-based analysis of the province’s forests showed that about 50 per cent of these lands are suited for uneven-aged management, or non-clearcutting” – p 42 in Natural Resources Strategy of 2010/11, a number that is probably far too low and thus errs in favour of industrial forestry and clearcutting.

**Nova Scotia and the feds have different definitions of clearcutting and a lot of the confusion about the “facts” today stems from that difference, with the anti-clearcutting side citing the figures given under the federal definition, and the pro-clearcutting side citing the NSDNR definition. For 2015, NSDNR cites a figure of 33% for the % of Crown land not clearcut, while the corresponding figure from the federal database is 16.6%. NSDNR seems quite content not to chime in and clarify the difference in definitions. However, they did respond to HFN inquiries on this topic – see NSDNR responds to HFN Conservation Committee document.

*** That’s of course an assertion and not a fact. I hope that the 10 PhDs assisting the Independent Review are as skeptical about my views (expressed in many posts and pages on this website and in a submission to the Independent Review) – as I hope they are of NSDNR’s assertions and subject both, in fact all submissions, to careful scrutiny. Factual evidence should trump opinion no matter the years of experience or number of letters after one’s name.

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