Lahey implementation brings uncertainty, high hopes, intellectual honesty
After studying Bill Lahey’s forestry review report for more than three months, the Nova Scotia government came through with an official response on Dec. 3, announcing its intention to fully embrace a new “ecological forestry” paradigm and to implement the “triad” approach (whereby land is designated either for conservation, for high-production timber management, or as “matrix” forest where multi-aged management prevails).
Iain Rankin, the minister of Lands and Forestry, indicated that he accepts all 45 of Lahey’s recommendations, which are mostly directed at Crown land. “The months and years ahead will be a time of transition,” he said, alluding to the fact that these changes will not occur overnight. In fact, most of the details have yet to be hammered out. There are quite a few unknowns – both for industry players, and for members of the general public seeking concrete evidence that the promised transition will actually transpire.
In the year to come, the province will draw on external expert advice to revise the Forest Management Guide for Crown land, with greater emphasis on ecological values. A related task, also involving outside scientific expertise, will be a peer review of the department’s Natural Disturbance Regimes mapping and methodology (which are widely understood to have mischaracterized a lot of forest, leading to a preponderance of clearcutting prescriptions). The pre-treatment assessment process is slated for revision as well, with greater emphasis on protecting wildlife habitat and species at risk.
A legislative framework for this more ecological approach will arrive this year in the form of a Biodiversity Act. The government has also committed to reviewing the Crown Lands Act.
Despite the general shift toward more natural and diverse forest conditions on Crown land, some Crown woodland will be devoted to intensive forestry (as per the triad), where herbicide use will be allowed but not publicly funded (as was the case already). Identifying areas suitable for this purpose is also near the top of the to-do list.
The province has stated, somewhat vaguely, that it will “establish options” for independent environmental reviews of proposed long-term Crown licences, with some mechanism for public involvement. In the meantime, Crown licences will be extended for a year, though licensees will be required to follow the Interim Retention Guide, which is aimed at steering harvest practices toward multi-age management. Until the Forest Management Guide (FMG) has been revised, prescriptions for clearcuts (i.e., “overstory removal” or “seed tree harvest”) must be modified, to leave a certain proportion of the trees standing on the treatment block. The objective is to foster diversity, notably through the retention and regeneration of “late successional intermediate to tolerant” (LIT) species, which include Eastern hemlock, Red spruce, White pine, White spruce (except on old-field or coastal sites), Red maple (on tolerant hardwood sites) Red oak, Sugar maple, Yellow birch, and White ash.
In stands where these species predominate, the existing FMG already calls for partial-harvest treatments. Where LIT species make up a smaller proportion of the stand, the Interim Retention Guide serves the modest objective of leaving some of them standing. There is a sliding scale: “Where greater than 30 percent of the pre-treatment stock is LIT species, approximately 30 percent of the stand should be retained; if the stand initially contains 10-30 percent LIT species, approximately 20 percent of the stand should be retained; if less than 10 percent of the stand is LIT species, approximately 10 percent of the stand should be retained.” The interim guide also calls for at least 20 percent retention on stands underlain by shallow or stony soil. Priority is given to retaining uncommon tree species, wind-firm species, and individual trees with valuable wildlife or biodiversity attributes.
PRIVATE WOODLOT ROLE?
Other promised initiatives stemming from Lahey’s recommendations include a review of Crown and private silviculture programs; a larger role for peer-reviewed and external scientific expertise in research and program development; an improved State of the Forest Report, with input from the academic community; exploring opportunities for small-scale wood energy projects; and cooperation with private woodlot organizations, as the changes are rolled out.
One of those organizations is the Nova Scotia Woodlot Owners and Operators Association, a group that is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Andrew Kekacs, the executive director, followed the Lahey review closely, taking every opportunity to provide input on behalf of his membership. His was one of 12 woodlot service organizations in the province that co-signed a letter to Premier Stephen McNeil endorsing the report in its entirety, so he was keenly awaiting the provincial government’s response.
“It is surprising to me that there is so little information there on which the landowner groups, and small landowners themselves, can make decisions. I understand that the province wants to implement on Crown land first, and that’s probably wise, but this creates an extended period of uncertainty, which will make it hard for landowners and landowner service providers to make decisions about how they should be managing their forests,” says Kekacs.
“We understand what ecological forestry is. Our philosophy of forest management was written 15 years ago, and it basically mirrors what Lahey said. It’s really quite compelling, what we wrote way back then. But it’s unclear what the carrots and sticks might be. By that I mean access to silviculture funding, support for treatments or activities of other kinds, impact on accessibility to property tax classifications that benefit landowners – there are a number of things that could potentially be brought to bear here, and it’s unfortunate that we’re not clear what’s on the table and what’s off the table. I’m not deeply critical; I’m just saying that if it takes a year to work out what’s going on on private lands, then that’s going to be a pretty uncertain year for a lot of landowners.”
Kekacs is a huge fan of triad forestry. A former Mainer, he was around when U. Maine professors Bob Seymour and Mac Hunter – both members of Lahey’s expert panel – received a 1995 Pew Fellowship for their work on maintaining forest biodiversity, which brought the triad concept to prominence. “It was a really big deal,” he recalls. “Ultimately, they were trying to raise the bar for forest practices across the landscape; create room for conservation reserves, which they felt were desperately needed in Maine, which has a much higher percentage of private land ownership than Nova Scotia does; and then create some kind of incentive for industry to support it, through the location of intensive industry parcels on a small sub-set of ideally suitable forest sites.”
The way Kekacs sees it, the acreage devoted to intensive management in Nova Scotia should be comparable to the acreage under protection – about 15 percent of the land base – leaving about 70 percent to be managed ecologically. “We have a unique opportunity here,” he says. “I’m unaware of any other jurisdiction in North America that has established the triad concept as a defining method for forestry. This would, in my opinion, put us at the forefront of forested places with regulatory systems that support good forestry. I mean, Nova Scotia can shine.”
Making it work hinges on getting a lot of quality-improvement treatments done for private landowners, which is a tall order, because woodlot service providers cannot even meet current demand. “We have a really, really long way to go,” Kekacs says. But he sees the potential for a big payoff.
“We could have a situation where, theoretically, we could have more land under light management, with a greater flow of higher-value wood, because that’s what ecological forestry is going to do for us,” he says. “It’s built around the fact that older, more valuable forests will allow us the economic returns, through higher-value wood products, to make this whole thing happen.... It’s pretty well demonstrated that growing more valuable, higher-quality climax species is not only consistent with the natural growth of the forest, but it also yields higher value for the small landowner.”
Though he is too diplomatic to say so out loud, Kekacs, like many others in this business, likely also appreciates the fact that the triad model is refreshingly honest. The industrial farmer who grows a crop of corn or potatoes knows that his field is an ecological wasteland, and he does not feel a need to make the outlandish claim that his cultivation practices mimic natural processes.
There must be quite a few government and industry foresters in Nova Scotia who are actually relieved that they will no longer have to keep up the pretence that even the most intensive management practices – leaving little diversity of species or structure or age class – are ecologically sound. DL