If you go out in the woods today, you’re sure to get a surprise, say N.B. conservationists. They speak of great swathes of clear cutting that have laid bare parts of the Appalachian Trail. Timber companies and the provincial government, meanwhile, point to reforestation efforts and sustainable management. The future may depend on the two sides meeting in the middle.
New Brunswick received the full green bounty from mother nature—deep Acadian forests stretching from north to south, covering 83 per cent of her territory. Not surprisingly, the woods form a fundamental part of the identity of most New Brunswickers.
This rich natural wealth led to a thriving provincial forestry industry, one that still predominates. The sector provides one in every 14 jobs in New Brunswick today, generates $1.4 billion each year for the economy and is the largest provincial export after oil.
Forest NB, the provincial industry association, says it is also a sustainable resource for the province. Of the 6.1 million hectares of productive forest land in N.B., only 1.7 per cent is harvested annually. Forest NB’s executive director, Mike Legere, also touts the positive effects of forestry on that most pressing issue of our times: climate change.
“In New Brunswick we are fortunate to have arguably the best managed forests in the world. We have the highest percentage of certified sustainably-managed forests than any other province. Our growth and yield top the country as well and we are on our way to increasing our contribution to pathway one targets for conservation by doubling protected areas. All of this is achievable because of forest management,” says Forest NB’s website.
It’s true. More than 4 million hectares of the province’s forests have been certified under one of three major sustainability certification systems: Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), Canadian Standards Association or the Forest Stewardship Council. On Crown lands, which total 50 per cent of all harvested forest in N.B., all five licensees have been certified under SFI, as well as freehold lands controlled or harvested by them. SFI is endorsed by the Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification, a global alliance based in Switzerland that claims to represent environmental, social and economic sectors equally in its efforts to promote sustainable forest management.
But while Forest NB claims the sector is building a sustainable industry to serve New Brunswick for generations to come, provincial conservationists disagree. On the contrary, many point to a forest in crisis, and almost all pinpoint 2014 as the date when things began to go very wrong.
Released shortly before provincial elections, the Alward government’s 2014 forest management strategy was seen by many as skewed in favour of the large industrial forestry companies. The plan increased access to softwood on Crown lands by 20 per cent and reduced the amount of protected natural area, which includes old growth forests and deer wintering habitat, from 30 per cent to 23 per cent. This left N.B. with a total protected area of just 4.6 per cent, placing it on the bottom rungs of national rankings.
The strategy was met with “shock and dismay,” CBC reported at the time. No less than 184 academics called on the government to halt its implementation. Roberta Clowater, executive director of the New Brunswick chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, said she did not believe the forest ecosystem would be able to sustain the increased pressure.
A 2015 report from New Brunswick’s Auditor-General Kim MacPherson found that 80 per cent of the wood harvested on Crown land is clear cut. She recommended an increase in partial and selective cutting, which better protects waterways and wildlife habitat. She also said N.B. had lost $7-$10 million annually over the previous five years managing its forests the way it did.
“When you go up into northern New Brunswick, you would be very surprised by the clear cuts that have appeared on the scene since 2014,” says Lois Corbett, executive director of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick. “It’s one thing to try to boost the pulp and paper industry. It’s quite another thing to go in and cut old stands, ecologically important areas and along rivers and streams. And that’s exactly what the legacy of the ‘14 agreement was and is currently.”
The provincial department of Natural Resources and Energy Development say while 20 per cent of the province’s forests have been harvested in the past 20 years, they have regenerated into young forests. These forests are not detected by satellite imagery, adds Legere in response to claims that images are showing a 20 per cent loss of forest canopy in the province, because the index does not pick up anything less than five metres in height.
“All the Crown forests in the province are completely modeled to make sure we never harvest more than what the forest can replace,” he says, “and we replace it through planting or natural regeneration, which means after you have done a harvest, you just let it come back.” Legere points out that companies operating on Crown lands are doing so according to government mandates. “In forestry, whatever you harvest, you must replace. It’s the law,” he says.
Legere says clear cutting is the most common harvesting method in N.B. because of the natural composition of its forests: 50 per cent conifer, 20 per cent mixed and 30 per cent hardwood. Clear cuts are often prescribed for stands of a single age class that are dominated by one type of tree. “It’s a very romantic idea to think the entire province should be a mix of majestic oaks and big pines. That’s not the nature of the forest here. We get the criticism that the entire province has been converted into a monoclonal plantation, but the composition of our forest in New Brunswick has pretty much stayed the same for the last hundred years,” he says.
While Legere believes it would be difficult for the average person to distinguish between a mature plantation and a natural forest, Corbett disagrees. “We all know what a natural forest looks like and it doesn’t look like corn row upon corn row of spruce and fir. There’s quite a difference in an older forest that regenerates naturally after a selective cut or ecological cut, as opposed to a large-scale clear cut, both in terms of carbon storage and in terms of that land-based ability to deal with snow and water,” she says.
“Older forests and sustainably managed forests, like in ecological forestry, are constantly regenerating. You don’t have this big bulldozer going through and cutting everything down and then planting seedlings that need the support of glyphosate to outcompete other species.”
For 20 years, N.B.’s forest management plans have included the use of glyphosate-based herbicides, which help reduce undergrowth and gives plantation seedlings a head start over other species. A 2016 report by the N.B Office of the Chief Medical Officer found that in 2014, only Ontario used more glyphosate on its forests. In fact, 28 per cent of all the forest land in Canada treated with glyphosate that year was in New Brunswick.
There is much scientific debate on the safety of glyphosate for humans. Last year, Health Canada reaffirmed an earlier decision to approve the chemical’s continued use for 15 years, following similar decisions by food safety authorities in the U.S. and Europe, despite a 2015 statement from the World Health Organization saying that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans.” While the jury may still be out on the product’s safety, if a damning verdict is eventually returned, it could be a bitter pill for New Brunswickers to swallow. Stop Spraying New Brunswick reports that in 2017 alone, $2,860,000 in public funds was spent on glyphosate spraying.
Rod Cumberland, a former wildlife biologist with the province of N.B., believes the use of glyphosate has dramatically reduced NB’s deer population. He has been an outspoken critic of glyphosate use for many years.
“My concern has always been the removal of 32,000 tons of deer and moose feed annually on Crown land,” says Cumberland. “The 2014 strategy reduced the conservation forest (set aside for wildlife values including deer yards, buffer strips and old growth) from 28 to 23 per cent. That reduction meant that the minimum thresholds of wildlife habitat would not be met on Crown land for nine species of wildlife including pine marten, fisher, northern flying squirrel, pileated woodpecker and others. These were indicator species meant to represent a suite of wildlife species reliant on this habitat type.”
Even so, Cumberland does not believe harvesting the forest should be thought of negatively: “It is an historic industry here and provides a lot of benefits. The concern is over how it’s done, and the lack of control in how it occurs.”
The pendulum swings
In 2019, the Higgs government announced it would double the amount of protected land in the province to 10 per cent by 2021. It was a nod to the federal government’s target of increasing protected natural areas to 17 per cent nationwide by 2020 and was lauded by N.B. conservationists as a step forward. Current Minister of Natural Resources and Energy Development Mike Holland said it was an effort to find balance between industry and conservation. In fact, the announcement was made possible by science.
In 2018, the Liberal Gallant government also announced it would increase protected areas, while still honouring the Crown timber allocations of the 2014 agreement. How is this possible? Thanks to advances in technology, methods for determining growth rates are more accurate and the Crown plantations are producing more wood than previously forecasted. Not only is this very good news, UNB forestry prof Thom Erdle says improving growth rates further on these intensely managed lots could theoretically free up to 50 per cent of Crown lands for protected natural areas. That is balance.
In August of 2018, William Lahey, president of University of King’s College and a former deputy minister of environment for Nova Scotia, released an independent review of that province’s forestry practices. His conclusion, after the year-long study, was that “protecting ecosystems and biodiversity should not be balanced against other objectives and values as if they were of equal weight… Instead, protecting and enhancing ecosystems should be the objective…” Lahey laid out a number of reasons for this conclusion, but the primary was that ecosystems and biodiversity are the foundation on which the other values, including the economic ones, ultimately depend.
Lahey recommended forest practices in Nova Scotia be guided by a new paradigm called “ecological forestry,” which seeks to align forestry with ecological protection and biodiversity conservation and to emulate natural processes. He recommended clearcutting on Crown lands be reduced to 20-25 per cent of all harvesting, and that new regulations be adopted to discourage herbicide use on these public forests. However, like Erdle, Lahey also envisioned maintaining intensely managed productive forests and stressed that ecological forestry was not anti-forestry.
Forest NB’s chief rightly points out that New Brunswick is not Nova Scotia. It is, in fact, much more economically dependent on its forestry sector. Legere is also doubtful N.B. would be able to achieve Erdle’s wish for 50 per cent of crown land as protected habitat. But he does say plantation recycling has begun. “We have been planting intensively since 1982 and we are going back into plantations now. You don’t always have to keep going,” he says.
“I have nothing but respect for my colleagues in the conservation community,” says Legere. “I think we try our best to define common goals we can accomplish, and I think it’s working. Sometimes there’s compromises to be made.”
The Conservation Council’s Lois Corbett, who would like to see the NB forestry industry move beyond the production of timber and paper to include higher value-added products, says she would like New Brunswick’s forest management to look more like that practiced in the Scandinavian forests and some of the plans in Vermont and upper New York State that prioritize water protection. “It would be more holistic. It would talk about our communities and it would talk about species There would be a lot more select cutting and a lot less clear cut. Now that’s going to take time to change, but if we don’t start now after two years of dramatic flooding on the Saint John River, when are we going to start to change?”
It is true that New Brunswick excels in silviculture, but is this the same thing as excelling in forest management? This is a question New Brunswickers must ask themselves. •