Last year, Finewood Flooring in Middle River closed because it couldn’t get enough hardwood.
This week, River’s Bend Wood Products Inc. of Pomquet, Antigonish County, shut down, citing a lack of steady supply of hardwood lumber.
Meanwhile, the Group Savoie hardwood sawmill in Westville is running at less than half capacity because it can’t get enough hardwood logs to turn into lumber.
In Bible Hill, guard rail poll and railway tie manufacturer Stella-Jones Inc. says production is being slowed by a short supply of hardwood.
Northern Nova Scotia’s value-added, homegrown hardwood industry is dying.
On Thursday, Allan Eddy, associate deputy minister of the Natural Resources Department, called the closures “rationalization.”
The owners of River’s Bend and Finewood tell a different story. They say the department’s own figures show there’s plenty of hardwood in the forests of northern Nova Scotia but the province gave it all away to Port Hawkesbury Paper.
“This is just what the Ivany report was talking about,” said Peter Christiano, who co-owned the now-defunct Finewood Flooring with his wife, Candace.
“We have a sustainable, value-added product that the market wants and will pay for but we’ve been blocked from participating.”
When Swedish pulp and paper manufacturer Stora offered to build a mill at Point Tupper during the early 1960s, the province bent over backwards to encourage it, giving the company management of all the Crown land in the seven eastern counties for 50 years.
That lease expired in 2011.
“(The Natural Resources Department) told us they expected management of the hardwood on Crown land would come to the hardwood producers when the lease was up,” said Paul van de Weil, who co-owns River’s Bend with his brother, John.
“But somehow that didn’t happen. (Ron) Stern ended up with control over it.”
The same year the lease expired, NewPage Port Hawkesbury Corp., which had purchased the Point Tupper mill, declared bankruptcy.
Stern was the only serious buyer offering to take over the plant that directly poured over $200 million annually into the Nova Scotia economy. Though the plant uses softwood to make its high-quality paper, Stern also got the rights to manage the hardwood lands.
The 36-page Forest Utilization License Agreement signed in 2012 between the province and the newly formed Port Hawkesbury Paper is more stringent than the old agreement but gives the mill the right to harvest 400,000 tonnes of softwood and 175,000 tonnes of hardwood off the Crown lands it manages in the seven eastern counties.
It also demands that Port Hawkesbury Paper enter into agreements with hardwood producers in northern Nova Scotia.
“We reached out to the hardwood mills,” mill manager Marc Dube said Friday.
“The real issue at hand is there are not enough hardwood logs to meet the needs of all the mills.”
Dube pointed to deals reached by the mill with B.A. Fraser Lumber Ltd. in the Margaree Valley and M.R. MacDonald Holdings Ltd. of Pictou County for them to saw on mill-controlled lands. The contractors got to keep the sawlogs while the mill got flawed wood to send to Nova Scotia Power’s biomass boiler.
But M.R. MacDonald Holdings has since stopped sawing and B.A. Fraser Lumber has been frustrated by shortages of hardwood. Its owner, David Fraser, warned last year in The Chronicle Herald that high-value sawlogs cut off Crown land are ending up getting burned at Nova Scotia Power’s boiler.
Those running Group Savoie, River’s Bend and Finewood Flooring say the deals offered to them by the mill weren’t fair, considering the wood was coming off taxpayer-owned lands, and weren’t fiscally realistic for anyone but the mill.
Sawlogs account for between 10 and 20 per cent of a hardwood stand. A quarter to a third of that share aren’t of sufficient quality to make lumber but can be milled to make pallets.
Dube said the mill harvested about 120,000 tonnes of hardwood off Crown land last year and will aim to harvest about 200,000 tonnes this year.
The vast majority of that wood will go to Nova Scotia Power’s biomass burner at Point Tupper. The next largest consumer will be the Northern Pulp mill in Pictou County, which mixes hardwood chips into its kraft pulp.
The sawlogs will be made available to the mills.
“Our staff worked hard to help those mills and went above and beyond what is expected of them,” said Dube.
Eddy said the hardwood industry relies upon a large amount of harvesting taking place in Nova Scotia to generate a supply of hardwood logs always being available. With the decline of the forest industry, Eddy said, fewer of those logs are available.
Van de Weil and Christiano counter that the biomass boiler is expected to consume 660,000 tonnes of wood fibre, with most of it cut specifically for burning. They argue there is plenty of hardwood cutting going on in northern Nova Scotia, but a lot is being burned to make electricity and very little is making it into high-value products.
“These hardwood industries are the poster children of the Ivany report,” said Matt Miller, wilderness co-ordinator for the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax.
“They produce high-quality products based on sound environmental practices. The type of forestry they do is not clearcutting. … This province should be bending over backwards to support them.”
But instead, they’re closing.
And Group Savoie only operated for 31 weeks last year because it couldn’t get enough hardwood.
“Some weeks we only saw one day to make sure that our employees can keep their medical benefits,” said manager Andrew Watters.