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N.S. report calls for restrictions on clearcutting, 'ecological forestry'

Last Updated Aug 21, 2018 at 4:20 pm EDT

A harvested tree stand marks a sharp contrast with forested areas on Higgins Mountain in Nova Scotia's Wentworth Valley on Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018. About 90 per cent of wood harvested in the province is clear cut. University of King's College president Bill Lahey released his independent review of Nova Scotia forest practices and concluded that the province should adopt a model of ecological forestry that balances environmental, social and economic concerns. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

HALIFAX – A new report is calling for fundamental changes in how trees are harvested in Nova Scotia — including a reduction in clearcutting, a controversial practice that fells large stands of forest.

The report released Tuesday by University of Kings College president Bill Lahey says forest practices should be guided by a new paradigm called “ecological forestry” which treats forests “first and foremost” as ecosystems.

It says the province should adopt a so-called triad model that sees some areas protected from all forestry; some forests dedicated to high production forestry including clearcutting; and areas that are harvested with a “lighter touch” and limited clearcutting.

Although he didn’t say it in his report, Lahey was unequivocal when asked whether there is currently too much clearcutting in Nova Scotia.

“Yes,” he said.

“There is too much happening where it should not happen … and the consequences of that is a continuing reduction in the proper functioning of the ecosystems and the biodiversity that are dependent on our forestry.”

Lahey’s report says clearcutting would be acceptable in some even-aged forests of predominantly single softwood species. However, Lahey says alternatives to clearcutting should generally be used where the forest is of the mixed-species, multi-aged variety.

It says the recommended changes are estimated to reduce clearcutting from 65 per cent of all harvesting on Crown land to between 20 and 25 per cent.

Lahey acknowledged that as a consequence there could be increased clearcutting on private land as industry deals with a reduction in wood supply.

“It’s a recognition of the reality that 70 per cent of our land is owned by Nova Scotians,” said Lahey.

But he said any adverse economic effects shouldn’t stop the province from better protecting Crown land and by extension privately owned woodlots.

“I do not think the danger of contraction in the industry should be a rationale for not implementing the level of protection for ecosystems and biodiversity on Crown land that I say is warranted. Nor should it lead to a faint-hearted approach for over time moving as much private land management towards ecological forestry as possible.”

About 90 per cent of wood harvested in Nova Scotia is clear cut, according to federal figures.

But Lahey’s report says about 80 per cent of forest harvesting is done through clearcutting, with about 90 per cent done on private lands and 65 per cent carried out on Crown land. Lahey said about 18 per cent of all land in Nova Scotia is owned by forestry companies.

Lands and Forestry Minister Iain Rankin gave no immediate reaction, saying the government would study the report before responding to any recommendations, including those that would reduce the percentage of clearcutting on Crown land.

“Given what we are learning in his 40 recommendations and if they are fully incorporated we can’t really speculate on what the percentage will be,” said Rankin. “Obviously Nova Scotians were concerned and we are committed to make change.”

The report calls for better ecological management and stricter overall enforcement by the province.

However, it conspicuously omits any reference on whether the use of trees for biomass energy generation should continue.

It also recommends that Crown licence holders be given access to public funding for the use of herbicide spraying to control competing species and to control the density of areas that are clear cut known as plantations.

Lahey also dismisses any notion that Westfor, a conglomeration of companies in western Nova Scotia, has limited the access of private owners to markets for their wood.

Announced nearly a year ago, Lahey’s review was originally due in February, but extensions were granted in order to complete the report and then to have it reviewed by advisors in international law and forestry economics.

It was met with a decidedly mixed reaction from forest protection advocates and an industry representative on Tuesday.

“I’m trying very hard to like this report,” said Ray Plourde, wilderness co-ordinator at the Halifax-based Ecology Action Centre.

“I think that there are some good things in it and there are some things that have been left on the floor that haven’t been answered at all.”

Plourde said the strong emphasis on the health of the forest ecosystem and biodiversity is “very commendable and appropriate,” as is the reduction of clearcutting on Crown land.

However, Plourde said he was “absolutely gobsmacked and shocked” the report recommends spraying on Crown land after a previous review basically stopped the practice.

“That is not going to go over well with the public who are absolutely sick of glyphosate spraying in this province.”

Donna Crossland, co-author of a previous report on forestry that led into a 2011 natural resources strategy, said she like Plourde is not a “big fan” of the triad approach recommended by Lahey.

“The public has never supported plantation forestry on our Crown lands … which is the reason why they want to bring about herbicide spraying,” said Crossland.

She said she believes Premier Stephen McNeil was interested in “listening and doing the right thing” and she hopes the government will implement the recommendations that are “most appropriate in an expedient manner.”

But Crossland said that can’t happen unless there is a change of attitude at the new Department of Lands and Forestry.

“A lot of the impediment to change (previously) originated from the former Department of Natural Resources,” she said.

Jeff Bishop, the executive director of Forest Nova Scotia, said while there are some good things in the report there are also things that “scare” him as a spokesman for the province’s forest industry.

“It’s always a concern if we are talking about a lower wood supply,” said Bishop.

He admitted that at this point he doesn’t know whether the overall recommendations will be good or bad for private land owners or the forestry industry as a whole.

“We are going to have to dig in to the information they provided,” he said.