The Forests of the Crown
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column about the debate over the future of the forest here in Nova Scotia — which is, I think, pretty much the same debate you’d see anywhere else. Industry wants to clear-cut the forests, and people with a longer-term view want to use the woodlands in a sustainable way. My original column brought a couple of responses, and I thought the issues raised in the responses deserved a bit of discussion on their own. So here is today’s column.
The Forests of the Crown
Steve Talbot is right, I’m not a forester. I stand before you naked and disqualified.
Steve Talbot is the executive director of the Forest Products Association of Nova Scotia. He speaks for the industry. He contends that – because I’m not a forester – my recent column on forestry “contained misleading statements about forest ecology, Nova Scotia’s forest industry and the Natural Resources Strategy process.”
In particular, I described the forest industry as dominated by a few large companies that have far too much power over both our forests and the people who work in them – and also over the government agencies that ostensibly regulate them. Not so, says Talbot. “The forest industry in this province is run and mostly owned by generations of Nova Scotian families” who “work in forests and mills, and in the companies and communities that support them. They’re your neighbours, friends and family.”
Well, yes and no. Mostly no.
Talbot is right that many rural Nova Scotians rely on the forest industries, and those people do indeed include my neighbours, friends and family. But the only reason they’re still working is that the pulp companies haven’t yet found a way to discard them. Between 2000 and 2007, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia shed 9,550 jobs in wood products and paper manufacturing. That doesn’t include similar job losses in the woods, where guys with chainsaws have been replaced by huge harvesting machines churning through the plantations of pulpwood, snipping off trees like dandelions.
Talbot says that the industry wants “sustainability, diversity, collaboration and transparency – grounded in informed decision-making.” Fine words – but describing clear-cuts and monocultural plantations as “diverse” or “sustainable” is sheer Orwellian double-speak.
Talbot is not alone, however. A woodlot owner in eastern Nova Scotia writes to say that government should “carefully consider the evidence of qualified people in the respective field and base decisions on facts, not emotion.” He further argues that “even if some of the public wants what you call a forest, it is the job of government to explore the issues, get input from various sources and consider the repercussions of any proposed action. Just because the public seems to want something, eg lower taxes, more doctors, better roads, more senior care beds doesn’t mean the government can or should do it.”
Hold on now. There used to be a theory that democratic governments were responsible to the people who elected them. What my critics are proposing instead is that governments simply rely on neutral, emotionless expert advice, although Talbot’s invocation of “neighbours, friends and family” contains a distinct whiff of emotional appeal itself.
Alas, expert advice is never neutral. It’s always rooted in values and assumptions. For a pulp company, value is measured in dollars. The experts know how to maximize the dollars. And if in the end the forest is mangled, too bad. If you’ve had a satisfactory return on your investment, who cares?
Buried in here somewhere is the assumption that humans actually understand the natural world well enough to manage it. But we don’t. Before the advent of foresters and “forest management,” the forest flourished. Even as late as the 1950s, woodlands covered 25% of the globe. By 2005, only 5% survived. In that same period, smug experts in the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans assured us that all was well even as they “managed” the cod fishery into extinction.
Through the recent consultations, Nova Scotians have asked for a diverse, resilient forest. As I wrote before, a genuine forest is a natural community, complex and diverse, full of complicated interactions. It performs vital services – carbon sequestration, erosion control, habitat – that we neither understand nor count, let alone value.
A real forest even yields more monetary value than a pulpwood plantation. Consider this fact: a single black walnut tree can sell for as much as $60,000 – enough to pay for a university education. How many acres of pulpwood does it take to produce as much as one walnut tree?
I am not a forester, no. But I am a citizen, and along with my fellow-citizens, I am an owner. Together we are The Crown. We believe that Nova Scotia needs a real forest, and we are entitled to be heard.
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