Clinging, falling, sticking
As sure as water flows downhill, so too do wayward leaves of oak and beech, released from their clinging grip on twisty twigs by winter’s sharp, biting westerlies, come to rest in a fresh ski path. They hang on obstinately through harsh November gales and hard December frosts, only to release and lie in wait to trip up an unwary skier expecting that the track just laid down on the way out will be a clean, debris-free runway on the way home. Alas, the silently sliding ski, stretched out to maximize glide and speed, encounters the patch of fallen leaves, which are ground into the grip wax and layered into the kick area of the ski, bringing the unsuspected skier to a lurching halt. It’s nature’s version of brown klister.
There are several theories as to what causes certain trees, in particular oak and beech, to hold onto some leaves well past normal fall leaf drop – a trait known as marcescence. One hypothesis is that the nutrients in the leaves, if held in arboreal storage over winter, will be more readily available for spring uptake by the tree than if they fall to the ground in autumn and immediately start decomposing. Important nutrients could be lost through dilution and leaching over winter. That might be true for easily-broken-down maple or birch leaves, but anyone who has tried to compost beech or oak leaves knows that their waxy coating takes a long time to break down; the sooner the process gets started, the better. Besides, many of those late-hanging leaves are swept away across icy crusts far from their mother tree.
I attended the Fredericton session of the New Brunswick government’s so-called pre-budget “public consultation,” even though two weeks before the budget most of the choices had already been made. The goal was to lead people through the government’s “Choices” document, which outlines a number of expense reduction items along with revenue generation options. The groups were asked to choose three from the expense side and two from the revenue side, along with two from each side that they definitely couldn’t live with.
Many expected a dog and pony show – and they weren’t disappointed. Just as things got under way, a couple hundred union members, who had been standing around the perimeter of the room, started chanting “under attack, fight back” as they marched around the room and departed through the exits. After the hubbub died down, the groups went to work and the leaders of each group started filing their reports. When it came to picking a choice from the document, many groups selected “none of the above,” opting instead for choices not on the list, like eliminating duality, increasing timber royalties, and closing down the tax havens that allegedly allow Irving businesses to avoid paying their fair share.
It didn’t help anyone’s faith in the process that earlier in the day Premier Gallant had announced that big-budget departments, i.e., Health and Education, would be protected, effectively undermining the consultation.
Four choices were presented that related to monetizing all or part of certain government assets. Two of those choices – selling off parks and attractions, and putting naming privileges on well-known sites or features – got thumbs-down from many of the groups. One monetization option that wasn’t on the list was NB Power (probably because a previous government lost an election when they tried to sell NB Power to Quebec). Monetizing the public forest wasn’t in the document either, partly because selling off or leasing Crown land wouldn’t get any public support, but mostly because the government is locked into a 25-year deal with no way out. But the clock is ticking on that deal (only 23 years left!), and it may be that swapping the 25-year license for a 99-year lease would be of interest to the forestry companies, allowing the government to renegotiate some of the bad financial terms of the deal.
For example, almost all of the benefits of Crown silviculture accrue to the licensee (as the auditor-general recently pointed out), so why should the province pay for that cost? There’s $25 million. Also, why should the province bear the management cost of Crown lands when the benefits arguably reside with the companies? There’s another $29 million. Then there’s the huge cost of operating the Department of Natural Resources, whose primary purpose is to provide support services for the forest industry. Get rid of all but the Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation functions of DNR, and save another $40 million. Finally, sweeten the royalty fees by $10 million, and there’s a round number saving of $100 million.
Of course the public won’t like this much, but – let’s face it – control over the public forest long ago moved out of the hands of the people and transferred to the licensees. The forests are public in name only.
MILLS TO RESTART?
The Conference Board of Canada is taking an optimistic view of the forest sector’s contribution to the economy in Atlantic Canada. (Much more so than expressed in “When the chickens come home to roost” on pg 16) In December the economic think tank stated that “strong U.S. home-building activity will help support demand for New Brunswick’s wood products and drive up prices, which will allow some currently idle mills to restart operations.”
Who wouldn’t hope that this is right? But it’s hard to figure out what idled mills the Conference Board is talking about. Mike Legere, executive director of Forest NB, doesn’t know either. In a response to the report, he noted that many of the mills that closed have been torn down and their assets sold off. There are only two mills in the province that could be restarted: Miramichi Lumber and the old Wilkins mill in Fredericton. Naturally, Danny Anderson would love to start his Miramichi mill, but he is stymied by a dispute with the government over wood allocation. The old Wilkins mill in Fredericton was restarted two years ago by a woodlot owner group, but it closed after less than a year in operation, and there are no plans to try again.
In spite of rising demand for lumber, prices have recently been falling, and have already contributed to the closure of a Tembec mill in Senneterre, Quebec. The glut of wood on the market right now will take a long time to work its way through the system. In the meantime, hard times for wood producers and woodlot owners will probably continue, as they endure a longer-than-normal spring break. That won’t do much for local prosperity. DP