Critics cut up forest strategy meant 'for everyone'

New Brunswick’s Progressive Conservative government has released a new forest strategy that it says tries to please everyone, including conservationists, wood-cutting firms, recreational enthusiasts and First Nations.

But the plan announced Wednesday quickly splintered between environmentalists, who said it didn’t go far enough, and Indigenous spokespeople who argued the government’s consultations had been meaningless.

The powerful forest industry was notably silent, saying it needed more time to digest the strategy’s contents.

At its centrepiece is an increase in planting and cutting on existing softwood tree plantations, while reducing the number of clearcuts in natural, Acadian mixed forests.

It will also steer the industry away from planting so many balsam firs in the south, New Brunswick's official provincial tree, in favour of introducing more spruce, a species that produces a higher quality wood for lumber and pulp and the department said was less at risk from the ravages of climate change.

The industry employs 24,000 New Brunswickers full time and contributes more than $1.5 billion annually to the province’s economy - the most money per person anywhere in the country.

But Mike Holland, the minister of natural resources and energy development, said at a news conference in Hanwell on Wednesday he wouldn’t allow the industry to add to the wood it chops annually until 2027. A previous Tory government in 2014 gave the industry far more wood to cut, but the levels have been frozen ever since.

“We needed to restore balance from our forest management strategy from 2014,” said Holland, an avid hunter and angler who has long campaigned on the issue. “It was loud and clear that New Brunswickers wanted change.”

The minister had already revealed parts of the strategy, last year putting 10 per cent of the land and fresh water under conservation, up from less than five per cent.

The new, 80-year strategy released Wednesday was called “Our Forests Are For Everyone,” and there were nods to environmentalists, the forest industry, maple syrup and blueberry producers, private woodlot owners, recreational enthusiasts and First Nations.

Industry silent

J.D. Irving, Limited, the province’s biggest forestry firm, said it was reviewing the document and would not be commenting Wednesday.

Likewise, Kim Allen, the executive director of Forest NB, which represents almost every other wood-cutting company in the province, including AV Group, H.J. Crabbe & Sons, Twin Rivers and Acadian Timber, said her members needed time to review the strategy and discuss it with government officials before it would have anything meaningful to say.

Green party leader David Coon didn't like the strategy.

“They say the forests are for everyone and they didn’t consult with the public about what their values are, what their goals and objectives are for the utilization of Crown lands,” he told reporters. “On top of that, in the face of habitat loss, climate change and glyphosate spraying, they’re increasing the conversion of natural forest to plantations.”

“We’re going to see more spraying, more habitat loss, biodiversity loss and less resilience,” he said.

Coon added that it was foolish to replace balsam fir with more spruce, arguing that species would also fare poorly because of climate change. He said it would be more sensible to plant more hardwoods.

The minister, however, took issue with Coon’s claims about more plantations being created on public land.

Holland said the vast balsam fir belt in southern New Brunswick, largely planted in the 1990s, wasn’t technically considered plantation, but in effect was set up for wood cutting. He said by replacing it with spruce, jack pine and other species, its use as a commercial forest wouldn’t really change.

“For all intents and purposes, it’s already a plantation,” Holland said. “It’s a single-species of softwood, and as we said, it’s not doing well in the southern part of the province. So we’re going to harvest that single species of softwood, and we’re going to replant some of it with spruce.”

Seeing the upside

Roberta Clowater, executive director of the New Brunswick chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, was more forgiving. She described the new strategy as a good start.

“I’m really pleased that the strategy is trying to go in a better direction on a few fronts,” she said. “We’ve re-instated protections for old-forest habitats and riverside buffers that we lost in 2014. So we’ve had 10 years of on-the-ground loss due to clearcuts that the forest is going to have to heal from. The strategy is putting us on a better track in that regard.”

She also likes that the minister has set up two advisory bodies, one made up of citizens and the other of First Nations chiefs, who are supposed to give direction on future plans.

“It used to be that the only conversations that happened were between DNR and forest industry staff, and the rest of us were left outside wondering what was going on. At least now there are opportunities for other experts and other people who think differently.”

However, she said her organization still wanted to see fewer and smaller clearcuts, and proof that the province was doing more to protect species at risk.

'My way or the highway'

Although Holland said his department had consulted with Indigenous groups for the last year and half, they balked at such a description.

“If the objective of the forest strategy was to ignore the Peace and Friendship Treaties, Minister Holland succeeded,” said a release issued by Mi’gmawe’l Tplu’taqnn Incorporated, or MTI, which represents eight of nine Mi’kmaq communities in eastern New Brunswick.

The organization said government officials largely ignored its proposals.

“Instead, they engaged in an inadequate ‘consultation’ process where they claimed that forestry, the single biggest industrial activity on our lands and waters, has only a moderate impact on our rights. They unilaterally proposed an accommodation package that did not meaningfully address our concerns, and refused to consider negotiating any changes to it. In particular, they ruled out a shared decision-making structure, without providing any reasons for doing so."

MTI said the Tories weren't interested in negotiating with First Nations.

"They continue to adopt a unilateral, paternalistic, ‘my way or the highway’ approach in discussions.”

The Six Chiefs of the Wolastoqey Nation in western New Brunswick made similar criticisms.

“The Wolastoqey Nation proposed many ways to improve the forest strategy’s accommodation of Aboriginal and treaty rights. Some were accepted, but many were rejected without explanation by the minister or his department,” said Chief Ross Perley of Neqotkuk (Tobique First Nation) in a release. “This government owes the Wolastoqey Nation a process that responds fully to our concerns and accommodation proposals, not a rush-job effort to simply check boxes for ‘consultation’ on a pre-conceived strategy.”

The chief said the province had held no discussions with Wolastoqey communities about revenue-sharing and ignored their concerns about logging in old-growth forests, providing more protection for species at risk, and eliminating herbicide spraying.

John Chilibeck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Daily Gleaner