When Harold Alexander walks through the woods in Digby County, he sees untapped potential.

The veteran forester has managed woodlots in this area for more than 35 years with an eye on the future. But it’s his concerns today about the state of the industry that took Alexander and four other people to Finland in September to find ways to import that country’s industry successes here.

For Alexander, the potential centres on small private woodlot owners, the management of their woods and finding access to markets.

“We have a forest policy right now that I think, for the most part, doesn’t pay enough attention to the small private woodlot sector,” he said.

“We’ve lost our industry and it doesn’t seem to us that there’s anybody working to get it back. And if we are working at it, we’re not working hard enough and smart enough.”

The trip to Finland was an eye-opener for Alexander for two reasons: the efficiency of the sector and the level of co-operation among landowners, industry and government. A report produced from the trip will go to provincial and municipal governments. Alexander and others will also talk to woodlot owners and “anyone else who will listen.”

Small private woodlots account for 60 per cent of forests in Finland, yet they produce 80 per cent of annual harvests, something Alexander attributes to organization. Nova Scotia’s proportion of private ownership is similar, yet it lags far behind in terms of supply.

Many Nova Scotia woodlot owners who don’t work the land themselves believe their only options are to leave it alone or bring someone in to knock it all down, according to Kari Easthouse, a member of the Cape Breton Private Lands Partnership.

For three years, the partnership has acted as an umbrella group to provide better services to woodlot owners, talking about methods “that are both good for the forest and put a little money in your pocket.”

It’s the kind of professional forestry services that Alexander said need to be expanded provincewide so landowners can better manage their woods and access markets. A similar group recently launched to serve the seven counties in western Nova Scotia.

Services include forest management planning, silviculture, recommending contractors, supervising operations, environmentally certifying woodlots and generally acting as a sounding board for owners.

Like Alexander, Easthouse sees a lot of unrecognized opportunities. “It takes a long time to grow a forest and a long time to grow an industry, but I think it’s important we start working on it as soon as we can.”

It’s easy to see through a forest in Finland because of how regularly they are thinned, said Alexander. He makes that point by showing off the way he works his own woodlots. The regular maintenance produces more wood and makes for healthier forests, he said.

“It’s thinning for the future,” said Alexander. “If we thin it we know we’ll improve the quality over time and the value, both for owners and for the local economy. This is not cut and run.”

This approach allows new trees to grow up, with more than enough regeneration to make productive, healthy new Acadian forests. It could also grow thousands of jobs and economic development for rural Nova Scotia, said Alexander.

The need for more mills

But there are limiting factors, most notably a lack of markets. In his area, mills in Weymouth, Meteghan and Bridgewater are gone, which means fewer opportunities to sell wood close to home.

“The trucking distances to the mills that are still operating is a long ways away and so a lot of value of that wood — that in Finland would go to the owners and contractors — goes into trucking,” Alexander said.

Alexander would like to see the government help facilitate the opening of more mills, so the value of what comes out of the woods stays in those communities.

A greener fuel

The same is true of biomass, he said.

Much of the low grade wood that comes from the forests he manages ends up helping fuel two boilers that heat Université Sainte-Anne.

Alexander sees this as a far greener approach to energy that also spurs economic development, rather than trucking in oil or natural gas from elsewhere. He thinks it should be considered for public buildings such as schools and hospitals seeking to get off fossil fuels.

That’s another lesson he said Nova Scotia could learn from Finland.