Former member of parliament Gerald Keddy is heading up a newly formed group of Southwestern woodlot owners and contractors who want to take the province to task on WestFor Management Inc.
A meeting was held on July 19 in the Forties to address issues woodlot owners, foresters and contractors say they have faced since the consortium of 13 mills formed and began cutting on over 500,000 hectares of Southwestern crown land, most of which is former Bowater Mersey land.
Keddy, who was MP for South Shore - St. Margaret's for 18 years, is also a private woodlot owner. He and Colin Hughes, the owner of a forestry company near New Ross, chaired the meeting.
"This is our resource, this isn't a resource to be owned by 11 sawmills and have a complete monopoly on it, this is a resource that belongs to all of the people of Nova Scotia," said Keddy.
Over 75 people showed up from Lunenburg, Queens, and Hants counties. Several people in the crowd got up to speak and one man even slapped a $50 bill on the table for the group to use for advertising, prompting others to come forward with cash donations as well.
Local sawmill owners have been speaking up on the subject of WestFor for months, with many saying they are finding it difficult to sell wood and many unable to sell pulpwood at all. Many believe this is due to a glut of crown land cut wood on the market.
Anecdotally Keddy and Hughes say they have had heard from locals who say WestFor-connected contractors have asked to cut wood on their woodlots for pulpwood. When the woodlot owners say there's no use because it's not selling, the contractors say that they can sell it.
The men argue that cutting on private land has gone down since 2010, while crown cutting has increased. Both say that the mills could source enough wood from private land without cutting on crown, particularly now that there are fewer mills in Nova Scotia after the closure of several big names, like Bowater Mersey in 2012.
"We know that in the past, crown wood was a buffer, it was supposed to be available to the mills when private industry couldn't meet the demand that the mills required," said Keddy.
Lack of transparency
Keddy says he suspects the reason cutting on crown is desirable is that it is "subsidized" because the province pays WestFor to manage the land and because the stumpage fees are lower than on private land. However those numbers are not available to the public and Keddy says "it's very difficult to find real numbers."
"We have not been able to find out how much WestFor receives as a fee from the government," Keddy told LighthouseNOW after the meeting.
In 2016, LighthouseNOW requested stumpage fees from the Department of Natural Resources, but was told the province could not release the information because it could adversely affect the competitive business environment or influence private land stumpage rates.
The information on stumpage rates also came back redacted in a Freedom of Information request LighthouseNOW made from the province.
Keddy says there is an issue with transparency within the Department of Natural Resources. He also called the department "neglected," saying management teams that used to exist no longer do and that there is a lack of forestry expertise.
"This is not a dig at any particular government, all governments have neglected the Natural Resources Department," he said. "The lack of expertise is alarming and if you're not alarmed by it, you should be."
Local foresters organizing
During the meeting several woodlot owners and contractors got up to speak including Travis Parsons, one of the largest private woodlot owners in the province.
"They're not done yet," said Parsons, referring to WestFor. "They want to go to their allowable cut ... they're not there yet, if they get there, they're going to drive everyone in this room out of business."
Parsons spoke to LighthouseNOW in November 2016 about his bid to get woodlot owners to get together and voice their concerns.
"We have to start getting out there, talking to our MLAs, telling them what's going to happen," he said.
Attendees at the meeting started to volunteer to do various tasks, including a group of younger people who wished to manage social media and others who wanted to donate money or help in other ways.
What happens next?
The province halted the approval of any long term crown land licences, including a ten-year Forest Utilization Licence Agreement (FULA) that was set to be signed with WestFor this fall. The consortium is currently operating on an extension of their interim agreement with the province.
Premier Stephen McNeil promised an independent forestry review headed by a single person, appointed by the government. The province has not released who will conduct the review yet, nor its terms of reference.
Keddy says he can only hope that the newly founded woodlot owners group gets to have their say in the legislature before any decisions are made on the WestFor FULA.
"We've talked to all the political parties and we would hope that they see this as a priority," Keddy told LighthouseNOW. "We hope the government realizes this is an important issue that they can't put on the back burner."
"The review will hopefully be a good thing but if the private sector doesn't get to have a substantial input in that, it could be huge failure," said Hughes.