The product and the purpose
It’s interesting to see forestry issues being raised in the leadup to the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservatives’ leadership convention, which is slated for Oct. 26-27 in Halifax. Early on in the race, Kings North MLA John Lohr positioned himself as the candidate who is most ardently devoted to Northern Pulp. He came out swinging against the McNeil government’s imposition of a 2020 deadline for decommissioning the Boat Harbour effluent treatment facility used by the mill – and also against P.E.I. Premier Wade MacLauchlan, for daring to question the environmental safety of the company’s proposed new system, which would pump treated effluent out into the Northumberland Strait. Lohr’s campaign policy makes the slightly paranoid assertion that those calling for greater oversight of the project are actually “attempting to kill the mill.” Apparently that includes fellow candidate Tim Houston, who – as MLA for Pictou East – has a lot at stake on this issue.
Cecil Clarke, like Houston, has sought the middle ground. Currently serving as mayor of Cape Breton Regional Municipality, and formerly the MLA for Cape Breton North, Clarke is more of a red Tory. As part of his campaign to lead the provincial PCs, he recently held a public meeting in New Ross – a community populated by many independent-minded woodlot owners – that was billed as a forum to discuss forestry issues. Gerald Keddy, the former South Shore-St. Margaret’s MP, who is a local Christmas tree producer, hosted the May 30 event. Keddy said Clarke spoke about the need to get beyond polarized opinions on the Pictou County mill.
“No one is saying that Northern Pulp should be allowed to pollute the environment; no one is saying that what happened at Boat Harbour, and with the First Nations there, was correct. But moving forward, there is a dire and dramatic need to have, really, the only surviving pulp mill left in Nova Scotia. Port Hawkesbury Paper is a very small part in that field,” Keddy said.
“Northern Pulp has to come up with a system that’s not going to continue to pollute the water. Look what has happened at Louisiana Pacific (the hardboard mill near Chester). All that effluent used to go into the ocean; now it goes into settling ponds, and they’re making compost out of it. So there is a way there to move forward.”
Keddy said another topic that got a thorough airing was the state of Nova Scotia’s Department of Natural Resources. “It is, quite frankly, a shadow of its former self – in terms of staffing, in terms of expertise,” he said. “At one time, as a Christmas tree grower, if you had an insect or a disease in your trees, you could go there and find an extension person that could assist you. If you were an ordinary citizen with a woodlot, or someone who used Crown land for recreational purposes, and you found something interesting, you could get an answer there. Natural Resources has been gutted. So there was a great discussion about that, and the need of actually putting boots on the ground in that department, to look after our Crown lands. I mean, whatever your opinion may be on WestFor, the government has given 1.2 million acres of land, 500,000 hectares, to one entity, and on top of that, to add insult to injury, we’re paying them $3/tonne, for every tonne of wood they cut, to manage it.”
Keddy said Clarke is acutely aware of the need to keep Nova Scotia’s mills operating, while giving due consideration to the concerns of citizens who are not part of the forest industry. “It’s not just about the big companies anymore, or the small woodlot owner. There’s a myriad of people who use the forest, and especially Crown land, for recreational purposes, whether they be hunters, fishermen, bird watchers, hikers, naturalists – and on a number of the issues there’s a lot of agreement,” he said. “If we’re going to manage for the future of public land – and this is public land – then the public has to have input. We had a very good discussion on that.”
I agree that public input is important. However, as the forest industry frequently complains, most members of the public have very little understanding of how this business works. If we hope to get beyond the polarized views – if we genuinely want the public to better understand forestry in Nova Scotia – it sure wouldn’t hurt to have more transparency about the economics of Crown land management.
It’s hard to get your head around why the province paid Port Hawkesbury Paper $4.4 million for silviculture on Crown land last year. It’s hard to fathom why, in some cases, that mill is receiving low-value wood that has been trucked more than 400 kilometres from Crown harvest sites in western Nova Scotia. The public has a right to ask questions about this mysterious business model, and to receive substantive answers. My sense is that, in forestry-positive countries like Sweden and Finland, most citizens have a pretty clear sense of the relationship between the industry and the government, and they have ready access to the financials; there is less secrecy, and therefore less suspicion.
We should actually be having a more honest discussion about the role of government investment in all sectors, instead of pretending we have a pure laissez-faire economy. There are, however, certain perils in making crude comparisons as to which ones provide better returns – the forest industry versus the film industry, or whatever. We need a diversified economy, just as we need biological diversity in our forests.
With New Brunswick headed for an election this fall, that province’s Federation of Woodlot Owners is calling for an overhaul of the Crown Lands and Forests Act – with more emphasis on ecological values, and far less displacement of private wood supply. Rick Doucett, the Federation’s president, recently released a statement urging people to make this an election issue. He cites an auditor-general’s report, as well as an assessment by Don Roberts, of CIBC World Markets, both concluding that Crown land management in New Brunswick is only marginally profitable. Maybe it’s okay if Crown land management is essentially a convoluted job creation program, but we should be upfront about this, so the program can be judged on its merits.
Paul Jannke, of Forest Economic Advisors (FEA), had a lot to say about labour issues when he spoke at the annual convention of the Maritime Lumber Bureau, which was held May 29-31 in Charlottetown, P.E.I. He said worker shortages and mediocre productivity in the homebuilding sector are driving a shift toward off-site construction. This is already happening in Japan, in Europe, in Australia, and in New Zealand, and it is the focus of the inaugural Industrialized Wood-Based Construction Conference slated for Oct. 24-26 in Boston, presented by FEA in association with the U.S. Softwood Lumber Board. “We don’t build cars in our driveways.” How’s that for a clever tagline?
“We want to bring the North American industry in to see where demand’s going to be going,” said Jannke. And he issued a warning about what this trend means for lumber producers.
“If you’re building your home on-site, you’re building it as a human; you can take the wood, you can adjust the wood, you can deal with some imperfections. But if you’re building a home off-site, it’s a robot who’s your end user. Your consumer is a robot,” he said.
“So we have two choices: the industry can change, and provide the material that the robots in the off-site construction industry want – or they can find material that is consistent, and that’s my concern. Because if you look at some of these countries – like in Europe, in England or Japan – this is the one place where steel has been able to penetrate into the residential construction market. So as an industry, it’s very important for us to recognize this change that’s coming over the next two decades, and make sure we get ourselves out in front of it.”
If the sawmill sector can rise to the challenge, there is tremendous potential. One feature of industrialized construction is increased use of cross-laminated timber (CLT). These solid wood wall panels use about four times as much lumber as stick framing, Jannke said. He pointed out that Marriott, the international hotel chain, is adopting modular wood construction for all its new buildings – not because it’s cheaper, but because it’s faster. He also reminded his audience that the well-established environmental attributes of wood construction are being recognized by decision-makers.
If that wasn’t enough to get delegates pretty excited, Dominique Briand, of Structure Fusion Inc., followed up with a presentation about mass timber construction, with profiles of several impressive new multi-storey wood buildings. Briand is an enthusiast of wood architecture, but he too offered some words of caution.
“It’s going to be hard for product people to get into this market, because it’s complicated,” he said. The lumber industry, which is accustomed to selling a commodity, will have to do a lot of work to get organized, in order to get a piece of the mass timber action.
“It’s not a product,” said Briand, “it’s a solution.”
In the May issue of AFR there was a reference to the Nova Scotia Forestry Hall of Fame being administered by the Registered Professional Foresters Association of Nova Scotia. The Hall of Fame is actually administered jointly by that group and the Nova Scotia Forest Technicians Association.