Atlantic Forestry May 2017

It’s all relative

    There is a sad irony in the fact that we now look to the European forestry nations – especially Scandinavia – with envy and awe. Government and industry people alike practically salivate when they see pictures of those well-stocked, perfectly-tended stands – living warehouses of timber wealth, promising fantastic levels of harvest efficiency. A few hundred years ago, when Europeans started nosing around in this part of the world, they were similarly awed by the forests here – not only the expanse of woodland, but the size and quality of the timber. It was beyond their wildest imaginings, and they got to work cutting it all down. There was so much of it that they couldn’t properly finish the job until mechanized harvesting came into play – but finish it they did. And now, by comparison to most of the paltry forests that have regenerated here, the intensively managed woodlands of Northern Europe look pretty good.
    When John MacDougall, executive director with the Federation of Nova Scotia Woodland Owners, gave a presentation about Finland at the Forest NS AGM this past winter, he started off by talking about the media. To my relief, he was not chastising journalists for their coverage of forestry issues (although most of us are inured to accusations of being either environmental zealots or naive cheerleaders for big industry). No, MacDougall was merely pointing out that one of the most widely distributed newspapers in Finland, Maaseudun Tulevaisuus, which means something like Future Countryside, is devoted solely to forestry and agriculture. He also mentioned a popular monthly forestry magazine called Aarre, a Finnish word that roughly translates to Treasure.
     “Treasure,” he said, “best describes how the Finns feel about their forests. Finland is a spectacular forest industry success story.”
    MacDougall was part of a five-person delegation that made an 11-day trip to Finland last fall, as part of the Forestry Lab project led by the Nova Scotia Woodlot Owners and Operators Association. The Forestry Lab is a collaborative problem-solving process, based on the premise that most structural challenges are fundamentally social issues that can be addressed by communicating more effectively and allowing for the incubation of new ideas. The project’s main players are holding a summit on May 23 to review what they have learned over the past year, and to formulate plans accordingly. 
    One of the Forestry Lab’s key findings has been the need for a culture shift. Yes, that sounds a bit like a catch phrase. We’ve heard it before, and if we say it too often it will lose all meaning. But there might be no better way to articulate the situation. Forestry is fraught with conflict in this region, and we have become accustomed to adversarial relationships among the various sectors. Does it have to be this way? MacDougall’s learnings from Finland have led him to believe we can do better. Like, way better.

    Finland’s land tenure structure is comparable to Nova Scotia’s, he said, with small private woodlots making up about 60 percent of the forested land base, and accounting for roughly 80 percent of wood supply – but productivity is proportionally much higher than in Nova Scotia. “In comparison, Finland has five times the land base, five times the population, similar landowner demographics, but interestingly enough, Finland has 14 times the forestry-related jobs, 17 times the annual harvest, 32 times the export value of forest products, and extremely high landowner participation rate in forest management.”
     It’s partly a matter of national identity, MacDougall said. “Finns consider themselves a nation of tree growers. They call their forests ‘green gold’ – for themselves, their family, and the economy of the country. They’re very knowledgeable and educated about the forest.”
    It’s also partly about a political culture that promotes collective efforts, recognizing that adversarial relationships are a vast waste of energy. “One of the big things we all noticed was the high degree of cooperation between woodlot owners, the forest industry, the government, and the public,” MacDougall said. “They don’t bash each other if they have a problem. They get together and they fix it. The government even has a guy called the liaison, and his job is, if there’s any conflicts between those entities, he’ll go in and troubleshoot, and they’ll get together and they’ll fix the problem.”
    Another major factor is the existence of a strong support network for woodlot owners – with 85 percent of them belonging to a non-profit forest management association (FMA). “There are 76 FMA offices across the country. They have sales managers, they have foresters, they have clerks, GIS experts, etc. What the FMAs do is they create efficiency and economy of scale for woodlot owners,” said MacDougall. “In my job with the Federation, I’ll often get a call from a woodlot owner that doesn’t want to deal directly with the company or the contractor. In Finland, what the FMA does is it creates a bridge between the woodlot owner and the forest company, which results in landowner participation in harvesting, because they know that they’re being protected and their interests are looked out for, and everybody wins.”

    It is estimated that only about 10 percent of landowners in Nova Scotia belong to a woodlot organization. There are efforts underway to address this, with various co-ops doing their best to earn the trust of landowners, trying to attract new members and bring more acreage under management. What kind of management? That’s up for debate here. 
    In Finland, it’s generally clearcuts in the range of seven to 17 acres, followed by scarification, planting, pre-commercial thinning, and two commercial thinning treatments before clearcutting again. By implementing this regime across most of the forested landscape, they have been growing wood like gangbusters. Their annual harvest is 68 million cubic metres, and the sustainable cut, based on highly accurate inventory data, could be 30 percent more than that. 
    MacDougall acknowledged that this tree farming model is not directly transferable to the Maritimes. “Obviously in Nova Scotia one of our goals is to maintain the Acadian Forest with all its diversity, and this requires a slightly different approach,” he said, “but in my opinion this doesn’t mean that we can’t practice intensive forestry.”
    So there’s the question of what that would look like, and there’s also the question of markets. According to MacDougall, Finland has “a fully integrated value chain,” with about 190 sawmills, 49 pulp and paper plants, and more than 130 bioenergy plants spread across the country. He said the inability to sell pulp wood and low-grade fibre is a major hindrance to woodlot management in Nova Scotia right now. Many others are saying the same thing.
    That leads us to the theme for May AFR: biomass. In this issue of the magazine you will find some compelling examples of wood energy installations – all of them, as it turns out, for heating. These projects make sense, insofar as biomass demand serves the purposes of forest management, rather than vice versa. Ill-conceived policy has given wood energy a bad name in Nova Scotia. Perhaps the notion of running stand-alone electrical generation plants has finally been put to rest, but there’s still this fundamental problem: it’s cheaper to generate chips by mowing down low-grade stands than by conducting quality-improvement treatments. Maybe the best scenario would be to have heating plants or decentralized co-gen plants in the hands of landowners, and pay them an oil-equivalent price. What about the role of Crown fibre? With talk of a pellet mill in Nova Scotia’s western region, and a provincial election campaign happening in May, I’m wondering if there will be a renewed promise of FSC certification for the WestFor lands.
    Theoretically, an integrated value chain keeps the various forest products moving to the best end uses, so demand is steady and prices are somewhat predicable. What happens when crippling duties are imposed on one of our main export products? The whole thing could go out of whack. And once again we find ourselves envying the Finns, who – in addition to having strong domestic demand for energy wood – are well situated to spread their forest products exports across the continent, within and outside of the Eurozone, and even to Asia and Africa. DL