The big stuff
We had some fine weather for woods work this spring – pretty dry, reasonably cool, with the blackfly index ranging from low to moderate. (Yes, I consider blackflies a meteorological condition that ought to be included in daily Environment Canada forecasts.) Now that we’re getting hot days, the prospect of wearing chainsaw pants or chaps is less attractive. But summer is short. You’ve got to bask in the sun and enjoy it while you can. (If only we could physiologically absorb and store the BTUs – like a stick of firewood – for use in the cold months.)
Here at AFR we are basking in the reflected glory of Gary Saunders’ recent East Coast Literary Award – specifically, the Evelyn Richardson Non-Fiction Award – for his book “My Life with Trees.” Published last year by Gaspereau Press in Kentville, N.S., it is a compilation of essays that originally appeared in this magazine, examining our native tree species from a personal perspective. In Gary’s case, that means it’s a combination of forest science, history, old-time woods lore, and stories of home and family.
For some reason, maybe because it seemed so obvious, Red spruce was put aside until now. Gary’s engaging piece on Nova Scotia’s official provincial tree – our “lumber paragon” – appears on pg. 38 of this issue. It includes a reminder about the practical and economic value of big timber. Advocates of intensive forest management like to point to the wide annual rings that show where adolescent trees went through a post-thinning growth spurt, which is all well and good if you’re in the pulp business. But on a Red spruce that has already attained considerable height and diameter, a relatively thin band of growth indicates a large increase in wood volume – representing a relatively high proportion of high-value saw material.
Coincidentally, the sawmill profiled on pg. 20 of this issue, Hefler Quality Lumber, specializes in large-diameter wood. It’s pretty impressive to watch a big spruce log rumbling off the deck. Sadly, the back-and-forth motion of a carriage line almost seems kind of old-fashioned, once you’ve seen a high-tech stud mill spitting out 2x4s. But large-dimensional lumber brings a bit of a premium in the market, and it probably generates more employment. In this age of ever-increasing automation, it’s nice to see workers actually handling wood.
Currently, all of Hefler’s sawmill chips are being used to fuel the on-site power plant. Selling them for pulp wouldn’t make sense, at today’s prices. The pulpwood glut in Nova Scotia is partly the result of high inventories at Northern Pulp in Pictou County. Apparently the mill continued buying wood during a month-long maintenance shutdown last spring, preparing for the expected curtailment of supply in winter, but we ended up getting a pretty mild winter, which meant there was not much slowdown in deliveries. Then there were some technical problems at the mill that forced it to operate at less than capacity, so there was still plenty of wood in the yard this spring. The week-long shutdown announced at Port Hawkesbury Paper in late June is now likely exacerbating the pulp glut.
I’m wondering if the mild winter is responsible for high populations of some critter – the Oak leaf roller, I suppose – that was doing a number on my oaks this spring. Did other people notice this? I’m partial to the oaks. It’s remarkable that any of them survive past sapling stage, because around here they are subject to heavy browsing by deer. I should seek out the results of a Red oak study that was being done at the Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute in Queens County.
That’s on the to-do list, along with getting my firewood stacked, which I meant to have done a couple months ago. What I mean is, I meant to have my teenage son do it. Energy self-sufficiency is a worthwhile aspiration, for a household or a larger jurisdiction, right? For those purchasing firewood, I’m told there’s an abundant supply in Nova Scotia right now, which is also partly attributable to the mild winter, though it’s likely also partly just a market response to reports of a shortage last year.
Recently my son was reflecting on whether he’ll still be stacking firewood when he’s my age. Good question, I thought. It’s more a matter of social than technological factors. Both my grandfathers were early adopters. They would have thought it was sheer craziness that I would be relying on wood heat in the 21st century. On the other hand, they might have been kind of impressed with the gasification boiler that has been serving our family quite well for the past couple winters. (Knock wood.)
I got a fascinating glimpse of some 21st-century technologies at the recent Atlantic Biorefinery Conference in Halifax, which was held, coincidentally, at Pier 21, now known as the Canadian Museum of Immigration. (It’s a highly agreeable conference venue compared to the windowless hotel “ballrooms” that often serve this purpose, and it would also be a great place to take out-of-province summer visitors – if you can get over the weirdly ironic sight of cruise ship passengers descending the gangway and staggering about, snatching up maple leaf t-shirts and maple-flavored candy corn, where new Canadians once disembarked and got to work helping to build this country.)
The agenda was broad, touching on many ways of producing energy or other high-value products from primary or secondary renewable resources, including agricultural and marine feedstocks as well as wood. It seems desirable and perhaps inevitable that some of these technologies will be commercialized as we reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. The forest industry probably has to evolve in this direction. But from a landowner’s perspective, it looks more like survival than improved prosperity.
One front where these prospects are being explored is a new project called the Innovation Hub, based on an MOU (memorandum of understanding) between the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources, Innovacorp (the provincial Crown corporation that provides venture capital, under jurisdiction of the Department of Economic and Rural Development), and Emera (the energy company that owns Nova Scotia Power). According to DNR, the objective is “to facilitate a turnaround in the forest products sector.” FPInnovations and the consulting firm BioApplied Innovation Pathways have been contracted to develop a work plan.
Allan Eddy, the department’s assistant deputy minister, talked about this in an address at the Federation of Nova Scotia Woodland Owners AGM in May, and again in a presentation at the Biorefinery Conference. He said the initiative involves identifying six or seven potential locations, or “hubs,” where new industries could locate. One of the emerging sectors that has been identified as a good bet is wood-based marine biodiesel. It makes sense, Eddy said, because the production standards are less exacting than for road fuel, and because there’s a ready market at the international shipping ports in Halifax and Sydney. “Another advantage we have is we’re only a few hundred kilometers up the coast from one of the largest users of marine diesel in the world, which is the U.S. Navy, so there’s huge opportunities there.”
The greatest barrier to making this happen is not technological. It’s a question of making a good business case, to entice companies to set up shop here. And that means – wait for it – guaranteeing a ready and cheap supply of wood. “So we’re doing a lot of work with the sawmills and contractors and trucking groups,” said Eddy, “to find ways to reduce the cost of delivered fiber.”
I’m all for innovation, but – again, from a wood producer’s point of view – it seems odd that after finally putting the kibosh on 24-7 firing of Nova Scotia Power’s Point Tupper biomass plant, the province is now devoting a great deal of administrative and intellectual energy to developing more low-value biomass markets. Let the eggheads have their nano-products, but let’s not lose sight of the big stuff – the mighty oaks, and the towering Red spruce that will make high-value lumber. DL