Atlantic Forestry May 2019

“A man on a mission”
Memories of Peter deMarsh, woodlot organizer extraordinaire

by David Palmer
Four days after CBC Radio bristled with the shocking news that Peter deMarsh was one of 157 victims of the March 10 Ethiopian Airlines crash, my wife and I were on an Airbus 319 flight to the Yucatan Peninsula. I’d hardly had time to absorb the news, let alone reflect on his long and storied life, and the intersection of his career and mine.

Looking out the plane window at the Appalachian Mountain landscape unfolding below, I made notes – as I’m sure Peter would have done over Africa, India, China, or wherever his travels carried him during the last couple of decades. I felt his presence strongly, and could picture the folded notepaper with the list of points he was planning to raise at the next meeting, on whatever topic was going to be on the agenda.

We were the same age, but by the time I came to the private woodlot table in 1988 Peter was already a veteran, having spent nearly two decades organizing marketing boards – in particular, the North Shore Board – and the New Brunswick Federation of Woodlot Owners. Hugh Williams was right alongside him in those days, and remained a close friend. They were both members of a group called Philosopher’s Soup, which Peter started in the Fredericton area.

When I met Peter in 1988, he was doing his best to handle two jobs – part-time manager for both the YSC Marketing Board and the New Brunswick Federation of Woodlot Owners. It was too much for one guy, and YSC decided they needed a full-time manager – a job that I was to fill for the next 26 years, while Peter focused on the Federation.

The Federation shared YSC’s office space in Oromocto, and I worked side-by-side with Peter as we tried, but ultimately failed, to fend off an all-out assault on “primary supply” and the boards’ negotiating rights. Natural Resources Minister Morris Green was on our side, but Premier Frank McKenna replaced him with Alan Graham, and shortly afterwards both primary supply and our right to negotiate were stripped away. It was a time of soul-searching for woodlot owner organizations, and it must have been a very difficult time for Peter, although he rarely displayed his true feelings.

Fifteen years later, with a lot of water under the bridge, I had another opportunity to work with Peter. After the closure of the M.L. Wilkins sawmill in Fredericton, Peter contacted me to see if there was a possibility of working with the mill owners to re-open the plant. He understood how important that mill was to woodlot owners, and was eager to try to get it going again.

In the intervening years, Peter had been busy, chalking up a long list of accomplishments. Among the projects he had a hand in were the establishment of the Canadian Federation of Woodlot Owners, Fundy Model Forest, the New Brunswick Land Trust, and Nashwaak Valley Wood Energy. On the policy side, he helped gain acceptance for the principle that woodlots provide “ecological goods and services,” he advanced federal tax reform that put the inter-generational transfer of woodlots on the same footing as farms, and he contributed to the development of a private woodlot certification system – among many other initiatives.

After Peter left to take up full-time duties with the Canadian Federation, most of us working in the New Brunswick woodlot sector had little knowledge of the extent and depth of his international work and influence. While he and his wife Jean Burgess continued to be very active in the community of Taymouth, N.B., where they were organic growers and vendors at the local farmers’ market, Peter also had a broader vision of justice and empowerment for small landowners globally.

When he died he was on his way to Nairobi, Kenya, for a conference of the International Family Forest Alliance – a group for which he had served as president since 2011. Duncan McQueen, forest team leader for the International Institute for Environment and Development, based in Edinburgh, Scotland, got to know Peter through this work, and recalled his colleague as a man with deeply held principles, an affinity for nature, a gift for human connection, and an abiding optimism. (See “Forestry philosopher.”)

I also had a conversation about Peter with Jean-Guy Comeau, who is pretty well known in New Brunswick as a passionate advocate for woodlot owners. Jean-Guy recalled Peter going door-to-door in Restigouche and Gloucester Counties in 1971 – despite his poor French – to sign up people to vote in a plebiscite to form the North Shore board. Réjean Savoie, who would go on to become MLA for Miramichi Bay, was also involved in this effort to help woodlot owners obtain bargaining power, so they could get fair prices for their timber – but Peter was the kingpin.

Jean-Guy said he and Peter were “like brothers,” and had spoken only three days before the tragic plane crash. He will remember his old friend as someone who always had an agenda, and was always trying to get something good going. “He was a man on a mission.”

(See George Fullerton’s tribute to Peter deMarsh on pg. 46.)