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HALIFAX—“In 1961 we leveraged a tremendous amount of Crown Land to get a company to come to Nova Scotia,” says Matt Miller, Forestry Program Coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre (EAC) in Halifax. “The focus was only on jobs and wood supply, and we gave them complete and utter control of 40 per cent of the Crown Land in the province, one in nine acres.”
The company in question, Finland-based Stora Enso, has been gone from Nova Scotia for five years, though, having sold its key asset, the Point Tupper pulp and paper mill near Port Hawkesbury, in Cape Breton, to Ohio-based Newpage in 2007. At the time, Newpage inherited the Crown Land along with the mill purchase. Amidst slumping sales and escalating power bills, the mill went into receivership in 2011.
Enter Vancouver-based Stern Partners. Headed by multimillionaire paper mogul Ron Stern, the company is the buyer of choice for the shuttered mill. Details of the purchase are yet to emerge, but Stern has let it be known that the workforce, which at the time of Newpage's demise stood at about 600, stands to be halved. Stern will enter into negotiations with the province to hammer out the purchase, and one of the key items on the table will be the 1961 Crown Land lease, which actually expired in 2011. Many independent woodlot owners, including Miller (who is also an award-winning independent woodlot owner), would like to see the deal revisited in order to better reflect 2012 conditions.
“We are expecting this government to negotiate a new agreement that doesn't sell the whole farm,” says Miller. “That means that one company doesn't have full control over [the crown land].” It would also mean that the company takes on more responsibilities than simply managing wood supplies and creating jobs, he says. Rather, the company would need to uphold the spirit of the Natural Resources Strategy by managing Crown lands to the highest standards possible, and consulting the public on how the land is managed, argues Miller.
Phase 1 of the Natural Resource Strategy (NRS), in 2009, was the last example of public consultation, and the only one ever undertaken by the Dexter government. Many blame this recoil from a decades-old tradition of government-public interaction on the fact that when the Nova Scotia public spoke up—which they did in the thousands in the case of the NRS—they demanded something the Dexter government didn't want to hear: stewardship and accountability of the province's forests, and public involvement in the process. If there were a time to make amends with the original intent of the NRS, Dexter might seize the day and revisit the land lease that now needs their attention.
“The logic of ever-shrinking workforce, ever-expanding, ever-increasing harvesting [suggests that] the government should tear up that old lease, and develop one that's modern and based on current conditions,” including the public's expectations that Crown Land should be managed to the highest level, says Miller's co-worker, EAC Wilderness Coordinator Ray Plourde. “We should not have to compensate any new owner that's going to scoop up that mill for pennies on the dollar in a bankruptcy fire sale.”
Fire sale aside, the provincial government has committed to earmarking 12 per cent of Nova Scotia land, by 2015, as protected areas, under the provincial Environmental Goals and Sustainable Prosperity Act of 2007. This puts the government in a difficult position: if the lease is not revised, the push to protect 12 per cent of the land could end up in direct conflict with Stern's stake, meaning the government would need to compensate the company for the property it would lose. Miller and Plourde agree that protected areas need to be exempted from the land lease before the deal with Stern is finalized.
As well, with the current state of Nova Scotia's “big three” pulp mills, one being in receivership (Newpage), one being responsible for one of Canada's worst environmental disasters (Northern Pulp and Boat Harbour), and one having just seen workers forced to give up many concessions, while CEOs walked away with 8 million in payoffs and the company given tens of millions in taxpayer bailout money (Bowater), it may well be time to give the smaller players in the forestry business a chance at bidding for Crown Land, according to Miller.
“There's already some existing manufacturing infrastructure in Eastern Nova Scotia. There's a series of value-added hardwood mills,” he says. “They've traditionally been shut out of any allocation of wood from Crown Land. This is a perfect opportunity for them to have access to that wood.”
“Smaller lease arrangements could be made for those local industry players that already exist,” says Plourde. “Hardwood mills that are making things like fine flooring, door and wall moldings, wainscoting, trim, and so on and so forth. They employ more people per unit of wood harvested, and they make a value-added product, so it's economically much better for the province. It would also allow for new enterprises to emerge, because they'd have some wood to access.”
Dexter actions have made it clear that the "big three" won't fail. The future of forestry in Nova Scotia suggests that now is the time to set the conditions for "small successes" that don't involve either extreme environmental degradation or a steady, continuous, flow of taxpayer bailouts.
Miles Howe is an editor with the Media Co-op and a member of the Halifax Media Co-op. This article was originally published by the HMC.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.