Natural Resources minister Lloyd Hines spoke about the state of the forestry industry and refuted claims of secrecy and his department's industry ties during a recent "listening tour" in southwest Nova Scotia.
Hines met with members of the Lunenburg County Chamber of Commerce on February 28 where he heard about how businesses are still absorbing the impacts of the loss of the former Bowater mill in Queens County.
"We made some significant notes about things we might be able to undertake to do, tremendous interest in silviculture and it providing sustainability to our forests and they're happy to hear we're spending $12 million a year in silviculture in our department," said Hines in an interview after the meeting.
It's clear, said Hines, that forestry is still a top priority and a main industry for people on the South Shore.
"We were talking about harvest methods, what the WestFor existence means to the area, and generally the state of the industry too," he said.
WestFor Management Inc., the consortium of 13 mills that has a 10-year lease with the province to harvest on over 500,000 hectares of western Crown land, has been a cause for concern among some private woodlot owners, loggers, and biologists.
When asked who approached who regarding the creation of the lease, Hines said he wasn't sure.
"I'm not sure how that originated or where the drive came from but I suspect it was probably a mutual arrangement that was born out of necessity," he said.
The mills had agreements with Bowater and after the Dexter government purchased the land in 2012 and reverted it back to Crown land, those mills stood to lose much of their access to wood supplies.
"All of a sudden [Bowater] had picked up and left the neighbourhood. [The mills] were sort of in a difficult situation in terms of continuing to do that as they accessed more timber off the Bowater lands when Bowater owned it than what they currently do through WestFor," said Hines.
Woodlot owners have expressed fears that allowing private industry to manage that much Crown land could flood the market, but Hines says cutting on Crown land only amounts to less than 25 per cent of wood harvested in the province. The other 75 per cent comes from private land.
Biologists and private woodlot owners spoke to LighthouseNOW last fall about their worries surrounding WestFor, particularly around government oversight, clearcutting, and the amount of wood on the market.
"[The sawmills] can control whatever they want," Travis Parsons, who owns J and J Forestry Ltd, told LighthouseNOW at the time. "If they can cut whatever they want, they control prices."
Some forestry operators are calling for access to WestFor's stumpage rates to see if it's more profitable for them to cut on Crown land, instead of purchasing from private lots. LighthouseNOW filed a freedom of information request to obtain stumpage rates, but the returned information was heavily redacted.
Hines said his department is transparent and pointed to the Harvest Plan Map Viewer as an example of openness.
The Harvest Plan Map Viewer shows proposed harvesting sites and gives the public 20 days to comment on them. The public can also sign up to be notified when new sites appear on the map.
"We're working through the bugs to get it done, [the viewer] is not even a year old yet, so we're hoping to improve on that process but our door is open," said Hines.
"We strive for openness, there are no secrets, we want the best practices to manage," he added.
WestFor and the province also came under fire earlier in 2016 after a harvest was proposed near Kejimkujik National Park. The government gave the plan a green light, and deferred just six of the 100 hectares proposed for clearcut that abutted the park, a move that saw biologists calling for stricter regulations and buffer zones around parks.
Hines said Crown land represents a very small amount of land surrounding the park.
Nova Scotia NDP issued a statement about the Keji clearcut, saying clearcutting on Crown land has increased by 12 per cent since 2013, but Hines said the amount of clearcutting has dropped.
"Clearcutting has actually dropped, the percentage of the overall picture, the last numbers I've seen but we don't have any particular numbers around it," he said.
"The clearcut is a bonafide technique that is used to harvest," said Hines. "There's all kinds of reasons for using it because of the nature of our forests in the province and we continue to monitor where it's appropriate."