In 10 to 20 years, Daniel George expects to see six-wheel-drive porters dropping off spruce at the bottom of this Guysborough County woods road.
He expects they will head to Port Hawkesbury Paper, where they will be sorted so that most will become glossy magazine paper, some will be turned into electricity at Nova Scotia Power’s biomass boiler and maybe a few of the best sticks will get sent to a sawmill to become the lumber with which we build our homes.
“That was once old Bobby MacIsaac’s land,” said George, a private woodlands contractor from up the road in Roachvale, Guysborough County.
“He died a few years back, around 1999 or 2000, but he carved a living off that land. There wouldn’t be an acre there that hasn’t been cut at some point.”
It’s not a pristine old-growth woodlot with great ecological value as habitat. The roughly 250 hectares the province bought last year for $247,640 from a woodlot-owning consortium called Five Islands Forest Development Ltd., who at some point purchased it from MacIsaac’s heirs, has long been a working property.
To understand this story, you’ll have to think like a lumberjack. Lumberjacks aren’t quaint bearded men clad in plaid swinging a double-bitted axe anymore. They probably never were.
They’re actually more like farmers, except their crops are on 40-year rotations, about the length of time it takes a black spruce in a well-managed forest to grow big enough to be turned into sawlogs and pulpwood.
And a good deal of the land harvested today in Nova Scotia for forest products hasn’t been forest for a long time. Much of this province was cleared or burned for farmland by early settlers and has been returning to woodland over the last century.
But what happens when most of the farm and forest land is beholden to large companies.
“It’s bringing us closer and closer to the feudal system our ancestors left Ireland and Scotland to get away from,” said George.
“Look at Antigonish, Cumberland and Lunenburg counties; they all have about 90 per cent of private ownership and have strong rural economies. Guysborough and Inverness and Victoria counties have the highest percentage of Crown land and industrial freehold land, and our economies are some of the weakest.”
About half Guysborough County’s woodlands are owned by the province, while nearly another quarter are owned by large industry. That leaves about 109,000 hectares of private woodlot ownership in the county.
According to George, recent purchases by the Natural Resources Department put more of northern Nova Scotia woodlands into the service of pulp mills and take them out of the equation of creating higher-value products that put more money into cash-strapped rural economies.
The heavily redacted 2012 Forest Utilization Licence Agreement between the provincial government and the new owners of Port Hawkesbury Paper created a legal obligation for the department to make 400,000 tonnes of undried wood available annually to the mill.
To return to the farmer analogy, a field or a woodlot can produce a variety of crops, some more valuable than others.
“The problem is we’re just murdering the land for hog fuel,” said Russell Huntington, owner of M.B. Pulp Ltd., on Friday.
“They’re flattening choice logs for hog fuel.”
Huntington employs five people, including himself, running two harvesters and two porters on private woodlots around Cape Breton. He can’t get access to Crown land because it’s being managed by Port Hawkesbury Paper.
Meanwhile, two of the province’s largest industrial landowners, Great Northern Timber of Sheet Harbour and Wagner Forest Products, have the contract to supply the new biomass boiler at Point Tupper. When generating electricity at peak production, the boiler is supposed to consume 600,000 tonnes of wood per year.
The boiler was originally supposed to rely on waste wood from Port Hawkesbury Paper, but the reality, according to private land contractors like Huntington, has been cutting hardwood to burn for electricity.
Meanwhile, the province’s high-value hardwood industry has been shutting down, citing lack of access to woodlands in the process.
Pomquet, Antigonish County, flooring manufacturer Rivers Bend Wood Products closed last February. Finewood Flooring and Lumber Ltd. of Middle River, Victoria County, closed two years ago, and the Groupe Savoie hardwood mill in Westville has been running a skeleton crew because it can’t get logs.
Allan Eddy, associate deputy minister of the Natural Resources Department, makes no bones about the fact the province has been expanding its land holdings in recent decades.
While buying up land, Eddy said, his department has been balancing the needs of small and large industrial operators while setting aside protected areas for habitat and recreational use.
“Next to Prince Edward Island, we have the lowest portion of Crown lands in the federation,” said Eddy.
Over recent years, his department has made land available to maple syrup producers and blueberry farmers.
Asked about the purchase in Giants Lake, he said there are “four or five mills within economic trucking distance.”
One of the accusations made by private lands contractors is that the province makes it cheaper for Port Hawkesbury Paper to cut on Crown land than on private, thereby creating a false economy.
Eddy denied this, saying stumpage rates charged to Port Hawkesbury Paper are based on market rates.
He didn’t say what the province pays back to the mill for managing the lands, citing privacy concerns.
Ultimately, neither George nor Huntington want to see the mill go.
It pumps over $100 million annually into the economy of northern Nova Scotia, and due to the mixed nature of the province’s forests, sawmills wouldn’t be able to afford to cut stud wood without a destination for lower-quality pulp.
“I know for a fact that if the (pulp mills) go down, then every damn thing goes down within one month,“ said Kingsley Brown, president of the Nova Scotia Landowners and Forest Fibre Producers Association, on Friday.
And he’s an advocate for evolution to forests managed to produce high-quality hardwood processed here into value-added products. But, he said, there will always need to be a destination for low-quality products like pulp. So his group is working with Port Hawkesbury Paper to allow choice hardwood sawlogs sent along with pulpwood deliveries to be set aside in the mill’s yard.
But whether there is enough land in northern Nova Scotia to supply two pulp mills, the new biomass boiler and allow for high-value forest management remains to be seen. The Natural Resources Department says there is. George and Huntington say there isn’t — at least not the way things are being managed now.