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The future of Crown land

Where politics, forestry, environment meet

AARON BESWICK @chronicleherald

Thirteen-thousand years ago, a massive bulldozer of ice punched down through the Folly Gap into the Wentworth Valley.

On Thursday morning, Greg Watson and his yellow Labrador Sam walked one of its drumlins.

The gravelly hill left behind after the glacier’s slow retreat is characterized as medium to high quality soil in forestry circles.

This quiet hill is typical to where reality will come up against all the research, planning, industrial desire, politics and debate raging 150 kilometres away in Halifax over the future of how we manage Crown land.

“I’m all for implementation of the Lahey report and the triad model on Crown lands,” said the manager of the North Nova Forest Owners Co-op.

“I think it can work. But I wonder who’s going to pay for it, and if it’s the taxpayer are they willing to foot the bill?”

And importantly, if we are to implement the triad approach recommended by William Lahey’s 2018 Independent Review of Forest Practices that would leave a third of Crown land untouched as protected areas, another third managed to promote biodiversity and long-lived high value species and the final third like an agricultural tree crop, will we be consistent over the decades-long rotations that pass through multiple election cycles?

“Because if you begin making those investments and then societal values change to prohibit a treatment method or you just miss a treatment, then all that investment can be lost,” said Watson.

In the midst of a provincial election, the NDP, Liberals and Progressive Conservatives have all stated support for implementing Lahey’s recommendations that would dramatically change how the 1.3 million hectares (29 per cent of Nova Scotia) of Crown land are managed over the long term.

Their answers to four questions regarding the implementation of the Lahey report can be seen at the bottom of this story.

Over his decades in forestry, Watson has run a power saw, planted trees, driven lumbering skidders and forwarders alternatively hauling logs to roadsides and spraying herbicides to give softwoods a head-start over their leaf-bearing competitors.

Now he meets with Forest Co-op’s 353 landowners in central Nova Scotia, listens to what they individually need from and want for their combined 80,000 acres of woodland and co-ordinates harvests and silviculture treatment plans. In his office he has 45 years of data on treatments, harvests and financial returns.

He was on this drumlin of glacial till that, if it weren’t privately owned, would fit the land recommended to be classified as high production under the High Production Forestry in Nova Scotia report recently released by the Department of Lands and Forestry, to illustrate his concerns.

That report lays out plans for 246,000 hectares of as yet unidentified Crown land to ultimately produce 1.3 million tonnes of high quality spruce annually — doubling the production expected out of untended stands.

Land will be chosen and phased in over time to a schedule that includes clearcuts, planting of spruce trees, herbicide spraying or manual weeding (the latter significantly more expensive), then a pre-commercial thinning of trees with a spacing saw and finally a harvest on 30-50 year rotations. The report notes that multiple rotations of this treatment will result in some sites needing soil amendments such as lime or biological fertilizers.

“Land zoned as High Production Forest has the primary goal of efficiently and economically producing high-value forest products to meet societal needs, while allowing a larger proportion of public land to be managed for ecological objectives,” reads the report.

“The HPF model is comparable to agriculture, as the land is intensively managed to increase the quantity and quality of a defined set of products over a specified time.”

Watson walked through a stand of forest on Thursday that had received those treatments — clear cut around 2003 with a net return to the land owner of about $2,500 a hectare, replanted in 2005 with spruce at a cost of about $600 a hectare, herbicided two years later to keep hardwoods down at about $250 a hectare and then precommercial thinned in 2017 with a spacing saw to open up room for the trees to grow for about $800 per hectare.

After 20 years of treatment under the proposed high production forestry model most of planted spruce had been outcompeted by leafy redmaples, birches and poplars, with some balsam fir that seeded in from neighbouring stands.

“So the trees aren’t free to grow, that investment is gone,” said Watson.

“I’m not saying it couldn’t work, this site needed a second herbicide treatment a while ago and if it got a second pre-commercial thinning then it could be where they want it to be, but that would put you up over $2,000 a hectare and down the road with soil amendments you could be at $3,000 a hectare. If you add in whole cost accounting, then it would get even more interesting.”

An adjacent stand on the same drumlin that started out the same way — mature hemlock dominated — was treated essentially the same as the province’s plan for the ecologically managed leg of the triad.

In 2008 it got a commercial thinning cut that provided less than half of the return to the landowner as the clearcut and then another entry that earned the landowner about $1,000 per hectare in 2019. The harvester was paid a total of $800 per hectare for both cuts and there’s still a forest canopy with predominantly commercially red spruce coming up underneath.

There was no use of herbicides.

“When I put on my forestry hat and look at this like a bank account, there is still principal here,” said Watson. “I’m not against high production forestry but what we don’t have is the research to say over a hundred years what provides a greater return, but my gut feeling is this is better.”

Beyond protecting the soil and providing habitat it is also more palatable to an increasingly environmentally conscious public that will pressure politicians over time when they see high production forestry going on next door.

The return on the required investments to make the high production forestry leg successful, worries Watson, rely not just on the views of the polticians running in this election but in all those to come over the ensuing 50 years.





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