In the last week of April, with snowbanks still lingering along the roadsides, I heard someone from the Nova Scotia Department of Transportation (and don’t forget Infrastructure Renewal) talking on the radio, explaining how they use an instrument called a “falling weight deflectometer” (FWD) to test the structural stability of pavement. It’s a trailer-mounted device containing a heavy steel disk that is dropped onto the road, to simulate the impact of truck traffic, with sensors to measure the resulting deformation of the surface. Fascinating, but really just a distraction from the hard facts about spring road closures.
After the winter we had, people were getting antsy. There was pent-up energy, pent-up demand, maybe a little pent-up frustration. I gave up on the idea of getting some wood cut in March. In many parts of the region it was mid-April before the accumulated snow had melted enough to make manual felling safe and halfway efficient. No big deal for someone with the modest aspiration of putting up a year’s supply of firewood, but for some people with time-sensitive commercial enterprises, the price was steep.
You had to feel sorry for maple producers trying to tap in. I wonder how many high school students picked up work shoveling out sap lines during March Break. Not a bad gig for a kid with a strong back. But then it had to be done again, and again. The syrup industry in this region has gone a long way toward adopting new technology, making the business far less labor-intensive than it used to be, but those miles of tubing through the sugar bush remain a point of vulnerability. We’ll soon find out to what extent the delayed season and logistical problems affected production this year.
Even some forest contractors running heavy gear, who normally count on good productivity in the winter, eventually threw in the towel this year. People were talking about snow so deep it obscured visibility from the harvester cab. For all the diesel you would burn just trying to keep access roads open, you might have come out ahead by booking an all-inclusive to Cuba.
Of course, many persisted in their battle against the elements. For mechanized operations, deep snow is likely not as bad as the freeze-thaw cycles we get some winters. Again, time will tell whether harvesting was constrained to the point of creating a significant lag in wood supply. But after last year, a lot of people who depend on purchased firewood will be looking to acquire it in a timely fashion. If we have a shortage again in Nova Scotia, there will be calls for some new mechanism to ensure domestic heating demand is met.
Wood energy, a topic to which we have devoted a lot of space in this issue of AFR, holds considerable potential in the Atlantic region. If we do it right, it could be a source of pride and shared purpose. Maybe it could even help to bridge the gap between the forest industry and the general populace. There’s work to be done there.
When the biomass power plant in Port Hawkesbury, N.S., was first being pitched by NewPage half a dozen years ago, the proponents talked of a hardwood sawmill renaissance at some point down the line, because the market for low-grade fiber would spur hardwood silviculture. Maybe that could have happened if the right policies had been put in place – although it still wouldn’t be a wise use of that fuel, given the plant’s inefficiency. In any case, the big boiler, now being operated by Nova Scotia Power, appears to be making good on all the worst predictions raised by opponents from day one. And it’s certainly not doing any favors for the forest industry’s public image.
Many who make their living in or from the woods feel they are unfairly maligned by people who have no understanding of how the business works. That’s disheartening, and probably sometimes infuriating. But there’s no going back to the era when resource industries could operate largely on their own terms. In the information age, everyone knows and everyone cares. The only thing for it is to engage with the public – and not just through advertising. One of the best things you can do is create opportunities for people to get into the woods and experience forestry first-hand.
Community forest projects, with local citizens involved in making management decisions on Crown land, could help to close the gap in understanding. Industry partners may gain some insight into public values and priorities, and non-forestry participants are likely to get a reality check about the economic and practical constraints that come into play.
The Atlantic Teachers’ Tour also serves this purpose. The approach is frank, rigorous, and open, in the sense that participants can ask questions and articulate their concerns. They might not like some of what they see and hear, but at least then you’re having a conversation about something real. That’s the difference between public education and public relations.
I recently heard a major forestry player giving an address at an industry event, and lamenting the difficulty of communicating with the public. “How many people here realize that there’s more forested land today than there was in 1900?” he asked. “How many of you think that the general public, the majority of the people of Nova Scotia, understand that?”
Okay, I thought, point taken. But that amazing fact has everything to do with expansion and contraction of agricultural acreage, and nothing to do with forestry practices. Mostly it seems like a dodge around questions of forest resilience, biodiversity, age-class structure, and timber quality – criteria a woodlot owner would consider just as important as land area.
The speaker continued, “How many of you realize that there’s more trees that die in Nova Scotia every year than are harvested for commercial purposes? How many of you think that the general public understand that? . . . We’ve got to do a much, much better job of it if we’re going to have some real level of public discourse.”
This amazing fact about tree mortality is amazingly facile, and I would even suggest it is deliberately misleading. We do not know how many trees die in the province’s forests every year, and even if we did, that would not tell us anything about abundance or sustainability or wise use. You may as well be talking about grains of sand on the beach. It’s a meaningless number, a statistical red herring. To suggest otherwise shows a disregard for science and an attitude of contempt toward the public.
It reminds me of an amazing fact I read recently in promotional material from a farm advocacy group: “Ontario’s corn crop produces a year’s worth of oxygen for everyone in the province in just 11 summer days.” Really? Well, I guess that’s all we need to know of the subject!
If you rely on that kind of PR spin, the message you’re sending is that you have something to hide, or that you’re not proud of what you do, or you just think people outside of your business are all idiots. Real discourse is harder, but it’s the only way forward.
Our apologies to New Brunswick contractors Robert and Eric Kirkpatrick, whose surname was misspelled in “Getting a grasp on ‘shovel logging’” on pg. 16 in the March issue of AFR.