Much has been said recently about clearcutting on public lands in southwestern Nova Scotia, including the former Bowater lands acquired by the province in late 2012.

Comments both for and against have shown a large, and potentially growing, gap between the various viewpoints of stakeholders and members of the public.

Amongst that confusion, however, and the potential for entrenched positions, the minister of Natural Resources has come forward with a welcome policy statement that has the potential to improve this situation substantially.

In a recent CBC radio interview, Minister Zach Churchill indicated that the Department of Natural Resources will be pursuing Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification on all public lands in western Nova Scotia. This statement is welcome news, and a breath of fresh air from a department that has often been slow to respond to new ideas.

The minister’s commitment to FSC comes on the heels of an independent review of a controversial forest harvest that occurred in an environmentally sensitive area at south Panuke Lake.

That report concluded that although current rules were followed properly, those rules need to change because they are inadequate for achieving the right balance of social, ecological and economic values.

One of the 10 specific recommendations contained in that independent review was for the province to obtain FSC certification on all public lands in Nova Scotia. This report adds yet another voice calling for FSC certification.

Mr. Churchill is being proactive in clearly stating that the province is “absolutely” committed to pursuing FSC certification for public lands in western Nova Scotia. This comes only days after the department’s written response to the South Panuke report appeared to be non-committal on this specific point.

Clear leadership like this is needed for the department to turn the corner from outdated forest policies and toward a more proactive approach to land-use planning.

Mr. Churchill has rightly identified FSC as the “gold-standard” for environmental certification systems for forestry operations, recognizing that it demands a high standard of environmental performance.

An increasing number of forest companies are pursuing FSC certification because it also has the effect of creating new markets for forest products, with more and more consumers demanding their wood and paper products come from well-managed forests.

A key requirement of FSC certification is the completion of a High Conservation Value Forest (HCVF) assessment. The HCVF concept systematically identifies areas of ecological and cultural significance within a particular region and requires any forestry activities to be designed accordingly, so as not to diminish these values.

Completing an HCVF assessment will help address a weakness in the current Crown land-use planning framework identified by the South Panuke harvest review, which often misses conservation values at a landscape-level scale.

Port Hawkesbury Paper Ltd., which maintains FSC certification on public lands in eastern mainland Nova Scotia and Cape Breton, worked collaboratively with stakeholders to establish a progressive HCVF assessment and a similar collaborative approach for HCVF design is needed for western Nova Scotia.

The other benefit of an FSC certification for the western public lands is that the process requires extensive public and stakeholder consultation. This brings more individuals into the decision-making process, and when tough decisions need to be made about where to cut, and where not to cut, that openness can lead to more buy-in at the end of the day. This reduces the potential for conflict between user groups and also usually means an improved forest management strategy.

Both the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) and Ecology Action Centre (EAC) look forward to working collaboratively with the provincial government as it moves forward with FSC certification on all public lands in western Nova Scotia. This is an important step in the right direction.