OPINION: Lahey forestry report: The good, the bad & the missing

Originally published in The Chronicle Herald, September 8, 2018.

On Aug. 21, Professor Bill Lahey released his long-waited independent review of forestry practices.

In a one hour briefing to stakeholders, Lahey gave the highlights of his report. The thrust was to confirm that, yes, there is and has been far too much clearcutting in Nova Scotia and the health of forest ecosystems and wildlife is declining as a result. No big surprise there. It’s the umpteenth such report to reach basically the same conclusion. “Ecological forestry” is proposed as the solution and is described in a lot of technical detail. Measures to reduce clearcutting and restore the Acadian forest through uneven-aged management on Crown land are recommended, while paradoxically also increasing intensive industrial forestry (plantations) at the same time in something called the Triad system.

At first blush, based on the overview presentation and handouts, I was underwhelmed and disappointed. Some of it was very good, naming some of the main problems clearly and proposing measures to reduce clearcutting and (finally) treating the health of the forest ecosystem as the guiding principle for Crown land management, rather than just a source of an endless supply of trees for industry at the expense of biodiversity and other values.

Having had time to read the entire 300-plus pages of the main report and research addendums, I can say with considerable relief that it is much better than the slideshow overview suggested. It is far from perfect, but I now see the glass is at least half full and that this latest forestry report, if implemented (and that’s a big if), could actually be a good basis for real progress. The devil will be in the details, but Mr. Lahey and his team of expert advisors were very thorough in the areas they chose to examine, producing some high-quality, well thought-out research and recommendations in those areas. Unfortunately, they also sidestepped some major issues they should have tackled and made a couple of big mistakes. More on that later.

READ THE FULL REPORT HERE

Note: Though the province recently renamed the Department of Natural Resources as the Department of Lands and Foresty, Lahey used the term DNR throughout his report as do we here.

The Good:

There is a lot to like in the Lahey report. Some highlights:

  • Paradigm shift to true ecological forestry. Priority on ecosystem health and conservation and restoration of natural mixed Acadian forests. Emphasis on encouraging more older forests of higher ecologic and economic value.
  • A major reduction of clearcutting on Crown land. From current government estimate of 65 per cent to 20 per cent.
  • Significant increase in uneven-aged forest management, sometimes called selection management.
  • Increase the amount of protected areas and provide connectivity between them. End clearcutting next to parks and protected areas.
  • Increase stream buffers and tree retention (clumps) in areas that are clearcut.
  • Much higher level consideration for wildlife in forestry planning, including migratory birds and endangered species.
  • Develop and implement recovery plans for the long-backlog of endangered species.
  • Forestry plans on Crown Lands to undergo Class II environmental assessments by the Department of Environment.
  • Expansion and long-term support for the Medway Community Forest co-operative. This is probably the only Crown land operator that actually does “ecological forestry.”
  • Move the M’ikmaq Forestry Initiative forward as quickly as possible.
  • More support for private woodlot organizations and landowners who want to do, or are already doing, ecological forestry on private lands.
  • More consideration for tourism, outdoor recreation and other values in harvesting decision making.
  • Change the culture at DNR. Much greater transparency, information sharing and reporting to the public.

Where the Lahey report really excels is in analyzing and debunking DNR’s carefully constructed wall of obfuscation and technobabble designed to sooth and confuse their political masters and the public, while enabling the continued widespread clearcutting of our forests.

In this regard, Lahey’s expert reviewers have done a superb job of debunking their so-called “science-based forestry” and “ecosystem-based management,” calling for independent reviews and improvements to a whole slew of DNR’s policies and procedures, including their natural disturbance regime and their pre-treatment assessment process. The Lahey report politely exposes them for what they are: nice sounding things that still allow and even encourage the same high level of clearcutting that has gone on for decades (i.e., the status quo — no real change). The jig, as they say, is up for DNR.

Rather than recommending a wholesale restructuring of the department (the preferred option of many), the Lahey Report tries to deal with the problems with DNR through well-considered changes to legislation, policies and procedures, complete with a whole lot of independent oversight to keep the beauracrats honest. They are spot on.

The Lahey Report also recommends an overall shift for the department, away from being industry promoters and enablers to being regulators and evaluators, and to end the culture of secrecy and control that pervades it now. These welcome reform measures, taken as a package, should be implemented ASAP. It would certainly go a long way to restoring public trust in government and ending the conflict of interest that is rife within the department.

But it’s difficult to see how this will happen if the same people and structures at DNR remain in place. Senior staff undermined and sabotaged clear and direct government policy and commitments from the last forestry review (NRS) and they are highly likely to do it again to the Lahey report. The McNeil government needs to ensure this does not happen. Again.

The Bad:

The Lahey report takes great pains to make it clear that it is not “anti-forestry” and there are certainly a lot of concessions to the forestry industry in it, presumably to get their buy-in. For example, the report completely punts the ball when it comes to regulating forestry practices on private land (70 per cent of the landbase). In many jurisdictions in Canada, the U.S. and other countries, there are regulations limiting clearcutting on private land. Government has every right to do so, as confirmed in the report. But Lahey’s team accepted the notion, long put forward by the big industrial players for their own benefit, that small private woodlot owners would revolt en masse and with such fury that it would simply be too horrible to contemplate. So a big regulatory free pass was given. The result: open season on private lands. Prof. Lahey acknowledged that by limiting reforms to Crown lands only, it could well result in an increase in clearcutting on private lands (already 90 per cent). This is not a good thing.

Even worse, the report recommends government once again approve — and pay for — glyphosate spraying on Crown lands. That’s right. In a massive sop to industry, it recommends that Nova Scotians should not only accept the return of spraying chemical defoliants on public lands but that we should also pay for it with our tax dollars. The discontinuation of public subsidies for herbicide spraying was the only commitment that survived from the last forestry review in 2011. And Lahey has recommended undoing this last small but important thing. Unbelievable.

What’s more unbelievable is how remarkably tone deaf this recommendation is to the larger social context it is trying to address. The terms of reference for the study specifically required examining the economic, environmental and social aspects of forestry practices. The global trend is away from the use of chemicals in the environment. The birds and the bees are literally dying worldwide and chemical use is being dramatically curtailed, as it should be. 

Nova Scotians have voiced their clear opposition to glyphosate use in forestry. The expert review team should have respected that, in the same way they respected the perceived social liability of regulating private lands. But they did not. Clearly the social lens was not applied in this case. Why the Lahey team decided to plant this lightning rod in the heart of their report is hard to understand, when simply recommending manual thinning instead would have accomplished the same thing, employed more people and would face little blowback. I doubt Nova Scotians would object to paying a bit more if it meant no spraying and a few more people with jobs. It is instructive to note that the largest Crown land licensee in Nova Scotia, the big pulp mill in Port Hawkesbury, stopped spraying glyphosate on their substantial plantations over 20 years ago – so it certainly can be done without chemicals. But the industry lobby had to have this one and Lahey bought their we-need-the-spray malarkey hook, line & sinker.

The need to spray glyphosate is rooted in the idea that industry must be compensated for necessary conservation measures and tacitly accepts the notion that we are obligated to sustain current (or higher) levels of forest consumption. And to do that, the report recommends actually increasing the amount of intensive forestry on Crown land as part of the Triad system. This meaning more conversion of mixed Acadian forest stands into softwood plantations. This idea is problematic in and of itself, but is further complicated by the green light for spraying. This blunder has the very real potential to overwhelm the rest of the report in terms of public debate and acceptance. It was ill-advised and just plain dumb. It should not be implemented.

The Missing:

The Lahey report on forestry practices is incomplete. The worst thing about it is not what it says, but rather what it doesn’t say.

The main ommission was their decision not to examine end uses of harvested wood (biomass, pulp & paper, lumber, value added products, etc.) and how these relate back to encouraging, or discouraging, poor harvesting practices, along with the resulting impacts on ecological health of forest ecosystems.

End uses or business models drive harvesting practices. It’s simple cause and effect. But that critical linkage is utterly absent in the Lahey report. The elephant in the room — overall wood harvesting levels and the uses driving all that consumption – were studiously avoided. It was stunningly obtuse of the review team to only look at the effects of harvesting practices without looking at the causes. It’s as if they took their mandate to look at the practice of clearcutting very seriously but then put on the blinders about the factors driving all the clearcutting in the first place. It would be like doing a study on pedestrian safety without considering roads or cars. The unasked and unanswered question being: What kind of forestry industry might be best for Nova Scotia and most suitable for “ecological forestry?”

In this regard, I really expected to see some discussion and direction from Lahey on focusing government policies and subsidies towards production of high-value, low-impact forestry products versus high-volume, low-value commodity production. This was the central concept put forward in the Doelle-Lahey aquaculture review of 2014. But there is nary a peep about it here. Instead, the report takes an oblique and unquestioning point of view with regard to forest uses or business models and just never mentions them. The underlying assumption seems to be that existing usages will continue and that’s okay. This was a major missed opportunity to apply the same level of solid critical thinking seen elsewhere in the Lahey report in this critical area and to set a better course.

Most shockingly of all, the report completely avoids comment on the significant new consumptive pressure of high-volume harvesting of trees to feed large biomass electricity generators, both here and abroad. It’s a glaring omission.

I asked Lahey why biomass was missing from his report at the stakeholder briefing and he gave two answers: 1. “We really didn’t hear that much about biomass during our consultation” (Wrong!) and 2. “We decided that we would not be looking at end uses” (What?)

Biomass was certainly within the purview of the review, was repeatedly raised in stakeholder consultations and was specifically identified by the expert review team themselves early on as one of four key forestry practices to examine: 1) clearcutting 2) herbicide spraying 3) whole tree harvesting and 4) harvesting for biomass. (Lahey report addendum, pg. 136). All other major topics were addressed in the report except biomass.

Lahey was given wide latitude to look into any and all aspects of the forestry conundrum in Nova Scotia. Additionally, his terms of reference directed him specifically to build upon the findings and direction of the previous Natural Resources Strategy (NRS) review. All three phases and reports of the NRS process dealt specifically and extensively with forest biomass use for energy production, advising great caution. It is only logical that Lahey should have addressed this clearly important area of forestry practices. There is no good excuse for ignoring it.

“The majority of submissions from private citizens and NGOs opposed the use of biomass for electricity generation.” Lahey report addendum, pg. 4

To be fair, Lahey was given a ridiculously short timeline to do his work. Whereas the last review took 3.5 years, Lahey and his team were only given six months (and it still took a year). I can only assume they felt they had to set some limits on their scope of work. This is understandable.

But time constraints notwithstanding, to sidestep the issue (and impacts) of biomass altogether verges on dereliction of duty. If they felt they didn’t have enough time, they could have simply directed the biomass issue to a future process for further study and recommendations, as they did with many other topics. Instead, they balked altogether. It is doubtful Nova Scotians will see another forestry review anytime soon so that leaves the biomass issue hanging out there unresolved and blows the best shot we had for dealing with it for years to come. Premier McNeil should request Lahey and his team continue their work and specifically address the missing biomass piece. But I’m not holding my breath.

 

 

Ten things the government should do immediately

As I said at the beginning, and despite rather serious shortcomings, there is a lot of good research and recommendations in the Lahey report. Here are 10 things government should do right away:

  1. Reform DNR’s function, policies and processes as per the Lahey report remedy package.
  2. Immediate end to clearcutting on sensitive/thin soils, particularly in western Nova Scotia.
  3. Immediate ban on whole tree harvesting. This was announced in 2013 but never enacted.
  4. Immediate expansion of Medway Community Forest as per Lahey's recommendation.
  5. Throw out the useless “western Crown lands plan” and start working on something to replace it that is guided by the principles in the Lahey report, including doing it collaboratively with stakeholders. More public influence into managing these lands was the promise and expectation following the Bowater land purchase. As recommended by Lahey, the western Crown land plan needs a complete redo.
  6. The Lahey report concluded that protected areas designations are unfinished (pg.18). Get moving with implementing the long overdue parks & protected areas plan in full. The plan is only two-thirds implemented and more than three years behind schedule. The government should concentrate on protecting forested sites, especially old forests which the Lahey report also singles out for more protection — e.g., Giants Lake, Barneys River, Wentworth Valley and long delayed additions to Bornish Hills, Portapique and Economy River Wilderness Areas. Many of these sites were purchased from forestry companies specifically for conservation. The McNeil government has been dawdling on these sites, and a long list of sites like them, for long enough. It’s time to get on with it. Just designate them already.
  7. An immediate end to clearcutting adjacent to protected areas (pgs.15, 64). (It is instructive to note that the recent Paunke Lake report also singled out this issue and recommended a minimum 300 metre buffer around parks and wilderness areas.)
  8. Quickly identify and protect all remaining old growth forest stands on Crown land as per Lahey. There is only a tiny bit left so it is tremendously important. Government must absolutely ensure that no more old growth forests are “accidently” approved for harvesting (oops). Especially for biomass.
  9. No long-term wood supply agreements (e.g., WestFor) until the report is fully implemented and public trust is restored
  10. Get serious about seriously reducing clearcutting on Crown land now. Stop waiting. It’s time to act decisively.

 

 

Raymond Plourde is the Wilderness Coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre.