by Jamie Simpson, July 2018; originally appeared in Atlantic Forestry Review, July 2018

Note, since this article was written, Nova Scotia’s Department of Natural Resources has been re-named “Department of Lands and Forests” (responsibility for mining and minerals has been moved to the Department of Energy).

In February of this year, Danny George, an independent logging contractor working in eastern Nova Scotia, raised alarm that Port Hawkesbury Paper was cutting old-growth hardwood forest on Crown land in Guysborough County. Nova Scotia’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) initially denied that the forest in question was old-growth, and issued a statement claiming that there were “policies and procedures in place to ensure old-growth stands on Crown land are not harvested.”

Nonetheless, DNR assigned a staff member to investigate whether any of the harvested or soon-to-be-harvested blocks contained old-growth forest. According to the May 9 report by Peter Bush (“Old Forest Assessment in the Lawlor Lake Area of Guysborough County, Nova Scotia”), the answer is “yes.”

Margret Miller, the minister of natural resources at the time, issued a mea culpa: “This was something that was missed, not only by Port Hawkesbury Paper but by us, because we actually approved the harvest plans,” she told the Chronicle Herald. “It wasn’t caught, and that’s something we sincerely regret.”

Bush’s report found that two of the 12 stands recently cut by Port Hawkesbury Paper were old-growth forest, and that 11 of the 15 soon-to-be cut stands were old-growth forest. It appears that George had raised the alarm just in time.

Bush also found that eight of the 12 harvested stands qualified as “old forest.” Under DNR policy, “old forest” is different from “old-growth forest.” Both types are defined as having a certain number of trees (at least 30 percent of basal area) older than 125 years, but to be old-growth, those old trees must be “climax species” such as Red spruce, Sugar maple, hemlock, and Yellow birch.

According to the report, some of the forest in question contained old Red maple, which disqualified it from the old-growth category. The report notes, however, that Red maple “may be acting like a climax species in this area.” If Red maple were considered to be a legitimate component of old-growth forest, then 10 of the 12 harvested stands would have been categorized as old-growth.

The mean age of all the stands surveyed in the report was 134 years, and the average tree age was 144 years. The oldest tree surveyed was 210 years of age.

Port Hawkesbury Paper denied any responsibility for the cutting of old-growth forest. Marven Hudson, the company’s district superintendent, told the Chronicle Herald, “We don’t identify the old growth – the province identifies old growth.” Hudson said Port Hawkesbury Paper relies on a pre-treatment assessment designed by DNR, wherein data are entered into a formula, and the program “spits out what treatment we should do.”

Given that Port Hawkesbury Paper, and other Crown licensees, rely on these pre-treatment assessments to determine how to manage a given forest area, one might wonder how the formula deals with old-growth forest. According to Bush’s report, the formula in use when Port Hawkesbury Paper assessed those forest areas did not include any mechanism to identify old forest. Thus, pristine old-growth forest on public land could be cut simply because the process did not flag such stands as warranting special consideration, and Port Hawkesbury Paper could not be held responsible because they were (blindly) following DNR’s formula.

As of June 2017, however, DNR’s pre-treatment assessment (PTA) formula includes a trigger designed to alert forestry companies to the presence of old-growth forest. But how well does it work?

Bush’s report found that even if this new assessment formula had been used by Port Hawkesbury Paper, only five of the 13 old-growth stands would have been flagged as old-growth, and only one of the nine old forest stands would have been identified.

“The current PTA trigger for tolerant hardwood old growth needs to be reviewed based on these study results, as well as other old forest scoring that has been completed by the department,” states the report.

DNR’s Old Forest Policy, released in 2012, includes a commitment to identifying and “setting aside for long-term conservation” at least eight percent of public land in each of the province’s 38 forested eco-districts. The eight percent includes any old-growth forest already protected in Wilderness Areas, Nature Preserves, and National Parks.

The controversial old-growth cutting by Port Hawkesbury Paper took place in the Eastern Interior eco-district, where DNR has already identified 15.7 percent of the area as old-growth or candidate old forest that falls under some measure of conservation protection. But Bush’s report notes that DNR does not know how much of this land is old-growth and how much is “candidate” forest that may someday become old forest. It is possible that little of the conserved forest is true old-growth, while the best examples of old-growth are available for cutting, because the eight-percent quota has been met.

A policy may be a promise, but it is not a law. Nova Scotia has no legal restrictions on cutting old-growth forest, on Crown land or on private land. The only laws regulating forest harvesting are the Wildlife Habitat and Watercourses Protection Regulations, which call for retaining treed buffers along certain watercourses and scattered “clumps” (at least 30 trees) in clearcuts.

Under Nova Scotia’s Old Forest Policy, there are three criteria for old-growth forest:
1) At least 30 percent of basal area composed of trees 125 years or older;
2) At least half of basal area composed of climax species;
3) Total crown closure of at least 30 percent.
Climax species in most of Nova Scotia include hemlock, Red spruce, White pine, Sugar maple, Yellow birch, and American beech. However, on certain sites (where conditions do not support typical Acadian forest), climax species can include Balsam fir, Red maple, and Black spruce.

The policy commits Nova Scotia’s Department of Natural Resources to identifying and
conserving at least eight percent of Crown land in each of the province’s 38 forested eco-districts as old-growth or candidate old-growth. Lands conserved under the policy are not necessary protected indefinitely, as the classification can shift if deemed appropriate by DNR.

Jamie Simpson

Not only are death and taxes life’s two notorious certainties, but they can be the source of perplexing questions for woodlot owners.  One thorny issue is whether capital gains tax must be paid when a child inherits or otherwise acquires a woodlot from a parent.

Children often feel compelled to clearcut an inherited woodlot to be able to pay the capital gains tax owing against their parent’s estate.  If the woodlot had increased in value by say, $50,000, then the estate could be responsible for more than $8,000 of income tax depending on the parent’s marginal income tax rate.

Now, fortunately, the Income Tax Act and the Canadian Revenue Agency’s (CRA) interpretation of the Act allow children to avoid the tax, either when inheriting or otherwise acquiring the property, provided that the woodlot activities can be considered to be both farming and commercial in nature.

Please note that this article is provided for general information purposes only, and is not legal advice.  A woodlot owner should consult with her or his lawyer and accountant for detailed advice about her or his specific circumstances.

When is your Woodlot a Farm?

The first question is whether the woodlot is a farm.  “Of course it’s not a farm!” many woodland owners would sensibly answer.  However, the Canadian Revenue Agency provides some favourable tax advantages for lands that are considered to be farms, and the Agency has decided (thanks to some serious lobbying effort by woodlot organizations) that certain woodlot operations can be described as farming operations (at least for the purpose of the tax benefits).

We once looked to the Income Tax Bulletins for advice on how the CRA interprets various sections of Income Tax Act.  However, not resting on their laurels, the CRA is gradually replacing the Income Tax Bulletins with Income Tax Folios.  What’s a ‘folio’?  I don’t know.  Income Tax Bulletin IT-373R2 used to be our go-to source to determine whether a woodlot is a commercial farming operation.  Now, sections of this Tax Bulletin have been replaced by Tax Folio 11 (Meaning of Farming and Farming Business).  None of this is particularly useful for most woodland owners, and I include only as an example of why some lawyers are driven to drink.

In any event, pulling together the relevant sections of Folios and Bulletins, we know that the CRA considers a woodlot operation to be ‘farming’ in nature if the focus of the operation is planting, nurturing, and harvesting trees according to a forest management plan, or, in other words, where the owner manages the growth, health, quality and make-up of the woodlot.  If, however, the focus of the woodlot operation is simply producing timber without much thought to long-term management and care of the woodlot, then the operation is considered a logging operation.  Even where a landowner replants areas with trees, if the focus is limited to timber production, then it is logging and not farming, at least in the eyes of the CRA.

In my interpretation, those woodlot owners who thin to promote the growth of favourable species, release crop trees to focus growth on desirable trees, and/or harvest in a way to encourage favoured species to seed and grow, all according to a forest management plan, can consider their woodlot operations as farming for the purposes of the Act.

When is your Woodlot a Business?

The second question to answer is whether the woodlot operation (which we will consider to be farming) is also a business (that is, a commercial woodlot).  Again looking to the appropriate Tax Folio and Bulletin, we know that the CRA looks to a number of factors to determine whether the woodlot is a commercial operation.  These include whether the woodlot owner has a management plan in place and is following it, whether the owner has (or has hired) expertise necessary to implement the management plan, and whether there’s a reasonable expectation of profit.  For the latter factor, where there is very little or no gross income for several years, the presumption is that the woodlot is not a commercial operation.  However, the CRA also recognizes that revenue in woodlot operations can be highly periodic.  Ultimately, a pattern of losses and marginal revenue can indicate that the operation is a hobby woodlot rather than a commercial business.  Such woodlot owners who claim otherwise tend to be the ones who end up in court.  Membership in an association of woodlot owners may also point towards a commercial operation.

What’s the Benefit of a Woodlot Farming Business?

If you are nurturing the growth of your woodlot according to a forest management plan, and can show some viable commercial activity, then you likely have a commercial farm woodlot.  If so, then you can pass the property on to your children, either while you are alive or in your will, without the burden of accruing capital gains tax during the transfer.


A Forest Management Plan, According to the Income Tax Act

Section 7400(1) of the Income Tax Act defines a forest management plan as a written plan that

  • Describes the composition of the woodlot, provides for the attention necessary for the growth, health and quality of the trees on the woodlot, and is approved in accordance with the requirements of a provincial program established for the sustainable management and conservation of forests; OR
  • Has been certified in writing by a recognized forestry professional to be a plan that described the composition of the woodlot, provides for the attention necessary for the growth, health and quality of the trees on the woodlot and includes
    1. A description of, or a map indicating, the location of the woodlot,
    2. A description of the characteristics of the woodlot, including a map of the woodlot site that shows those characteristics,
    3. A description of the development of the woodlot, including the activities carried out on the woodlot, since the taxpayer acquired it,
    4. Information acceptable to the recognized forestry professional estimating
      1. The ages and heights of the trees on the woodlot, and their species,
      2. The quantity of wood on the woodlot,
  • The quality and composition of the soil underlying the woodlot, and
  1. The quantity of wood that the woodlot could yield as a result of the implementation of the plan,
  1. A description of, and the timing for, the activities proposed to be carried out on the woodlot under the plan, including any of those activities that deal with
    1. Harvesting
    2. Renewal and regeneration
  • The application of silviculture techniques, and
  1. Responsible stewardship and the protection of the environment, and
  1. A description of the objectives and strategies for the management and development of the woodlot over a period of at least five years.

A recognized forestry professional is someone with a degree, diploma or certificate recognized by the Canadian Forestry accreditation Board, the Canadian Institute of Forestry, or the Canadian Council of Technicians and Technologists.





Originally published in the Chronicle Herald, November 3, 2017

John McPhee’s article in last Saturday’s paper “Climate change may endanger spruce, fir” is an important story to tell.  Yes, many of our trees will die as the climate changes because these trees are adapted to a more northern climate.  But McPhee’s article is half of the story.  Part II is the unfortunate reality that these vulnerable trees are unnaturally abundant in our forests because of our forestry (mis)management.

In a process sometimes called “borealization,” we have transformed much of our forestland into something more closely resembling the northern Boreal Forest.  It’s not that Balsam Fir and White Spruce wouldn’t naturally occur in the Maritimes.  It’s just that these species would be much less common on our landscape in the absence of clearcutting and past land-clearing for agriculture.

The reason behind this changed forest is that forests are adapted to different types of disturbances.  The Boreal Forest thrives under high-disturbance conditions such as frequent fires and large-scale wind and insect damage, occurring over a period of decades.  Our Acadian Forest (found in the Maritimes and parts of Maine and northern New England), on the other hand, thrives under smaller-scale forest disturbances that kill only a few trees at a time.  Large natural disturbances occur in the Acadian Forest, of course, but only very rarely, at time intervals measured in centuries.

Do I hear an “aha!”?  Our legacy of past land clearing for agriculture and our current use of wide-spread clearcutting has created conditions very favourable to Boreal Forest tree species, and indeed Boreal Forest species have flourished at the expense of our warmer-climate adapted species.  We have put our forests in an extremely vulnerable position.  Even without climate change, we’ve created forests that are susceptible to greater damage from disease, insect outbreaks and windstorms.  Add climate change and we may well witness a ‘perfect storm’ of stresses on large areas of our forest.

This is nothing new.  Forest scientists have known about the “borealization” of our forests for decades.  Forest scientists have also been predicting the negative impacts of climate change on our forest for at least a decade or two.  What is disturbing is that our government consistently ignores these serious threats to our forests and continues to support forestry practices that exacerbate the problem.

How might be manage our forests if the future (and our children) mattered?

We would encourage forest harvesting and silviculture practices that favour trees that are at the northern end of their range (rather than encouraging those at the southern end of their range as we are doing now).  This means less clearcutting and more partial cutting methods.  It means adopting thinning practices that favour our southern species and forests with a diversity of tree ages growing together.  This is not an impossible thing to accomplish.  I’ve seen it done by progressive foresters on numerous woodlots in the span of a couple of decades.  I’ve had some success within fifteen years on my own woodlot: a diversity of ages replaces the single-aged forest and the abundance of balsam fir and white spruce declines while pines, maples and other more southerly species increase.  It’s not difficult; it just requires some forward thinking.

There’s never a one solution fits all in forestry, but our government appears oblivious to the need to change at all.  Our politicians and senior Department of Natural Resources staff seem determined to forge blindly ahead with the clearcutting status quo.  Hopefully we get some bright lights on the proverbial steering wheel before they drive the truck over the cliff.


Jamie Simpson is a forester, woodlot owner and lawyer, and is the author of Restoring the Acadian Forest: A guide for woodland owners in Eastern Canada, Second Edition, published by Nimbus.

Long-awaited Nutrient Budget Model serves as a reality check on yield assumptions

Originally published in Atlantic Forestry Review, July 2017:

by Jamie Simpson

Soil scientist Kevin Keys and four colleagues recently published a paper about their study of forest soil productivity in Nova Scotia. Though it contains only a sampling of what their work can tell us about forestry and soil nutrients, it’s worth a close look. The paper, “A Simple Geospatial Nutrient Budget Model for Assessing Forest Harvest Sustainability across Nova Scotia, Canada,” (published in Open Journal of Forestry, 6, 420- 444), gives us a glimpse into the long-awaited Nutrient Budget Model (NBM), as it is known, which was created by a team of researchers including Keys, of the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources (NSDNR), and Dr. Paul Arp, of the University of New Brunswick.

The NBM measures the long-term sustainability of various forest harvesting scenarios on the various soil types and conditions throughout Nova Scotia. It accounts for nutrients added to the soil from the weathering of rocks and deposition from the air, and loss of nutrients due to leaching (which is exacerbated by acid precipitation) and forest harvesting.

Dr. Arp likens the model to a bank account. Nutrients, like dollars, can go up and down in the short term without causing major issues. The problem is that forest soils in much of Nova Scotia have a very small “bank account” of nutrients. It does not take a large loss for the account to dip below a critical level. Trees cannot live on a deficit, so if nutrients drop below this threshold, trees slow their growth and may be taken over by plants that can make do with poorer soils. When the model predicts this outcome as the result of a given harvest scenario, it displays its answer in red lettering: “unsustainable.”

Unfortunately, Keys and his colleagues do not reveal what their model might tell us about the predicted impacts of clearcutting and whole-tree harvesting across the entire province. However, they do tell us that in combination with the effects of acid precipitation, whole-tree harvesting and even conventional stem-only clearcutting can reduce growth potential in Nova Scotia’s forests. This result, the authors point out, contrasts with an assumption held by some forest managers that “increased yields predicted through intensive management are sustainable on any given site.”

The paper includes a case study comprising 25 spruce plantations, comparing their productivity as predicted by the forest managers, and as predicted by the NBM. According to the authors, as many as half of the plantations will not produce as much wood as the forest managers predict, which means wood supply forecasts, at least for those plantations, would be unsustainable. The authors suggest that forest managers can use the model to fine-tune harvesting, avoiding productivity declines by reducing harvest levels or increasing the time period between harvests.

Dr. David Patriquin, a retired Dalhousie biology professor, welcomes the study for the insight it provides on how forest harvesting can affect soil productivity. “This is perhaps the first formal acknowledgment from NSDNR that forest harvest can worsen the effects of acid rain,” Dr. Patriquin says. Moreover, he points to the study’s finding that “base saturation” (a measure of the soil’s ability to hold on to nutrients – an important aspect of soil fertility) is “much lower in much of Nova Scotia than previously believed… It’s 37 to 82 percent lower compared to earlier soil surveys.”

Beyond the direct impact on soil fertility, low base saturation can lead to damagingly high levels of aluminum, explains Dr. Patriquin. “Base saturation below 15 percent results in aluminum stress for many forest trees, and this new study shows that we have a base saturation of only five to 10 percent over much of Nova Scotia,” he says.

“Basically, this study helps show that our soils, forests, and aquatic systems are already highly stressed,” concludes Patriquin. “Clearcutting, especially in southwestern Nova Scotia, only increases the stress on these ecosystems.”


In a presentation to the Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute’s 2014 Science Conference, Keys noted that the NBM project was initiated by NSDNR in 2008 due to interest in harvesting forests for biomass energy. The department wanted a “decision support tool” to determine where biomass harvesting might be suitable.

NSDNR contracted Arp and his team at the University of New Brunswick to build the model, and they completed it in 2011. Since then, NSDNR has been clarifying, checking, and updating the model, but has not made the results public, beyond what appears in the Open Journal of Forestry. The article includes province-wide maps of site productivity for Red spruce and Sugar maple, based on NBM estimates, but these results are not considered accurate because they are based on decades-old soil surveys. The department is currently updating those data through a 5-year soil sampling program.

The province has made several announcements regarding biomass harvesting, starting in 2010, with a policy commitment to “prohibit the removal of whole trees from the forest site.” In the 2011 Natural Resources Strategy, titled “The Path We Share,” NSDNR committed to establishing “rules for whole-tree harvesting.”

In 2013, NSDNR released a discussion paper that recommended amending regulations in order to prohibit whole-tree harvesting in the context of forestry operations. The recommendation was based on a review of “provincial policies and current literature, preliminary nutrient budget model analyses, and compatibility with other Natural Resources Strategy initiatives.” That same year, the department released a 24-Month Progress Report on implementing the Natural Resources Strategy, stating – in apparent contradiction with reality – that the province had “prohibited whole-tree and full-tree harvesting on Crown or private lands.”

In its Five-year Progress Report, released in 2016, the department backpedaled on regulating whole-tree harvesting. This document states, “We have now developed tools that ensure that all harvest treatments are aligned with the nature-based requirements of Nova Scotia’s lands,” and it refers to a Nutrient Budget Model being “in development.”

Today there are no legal restrictions against whole-tree harvesting on private land. On Crown land, timber licensees are prohibited from removing “coarse or fine wood debris, tree crowns (tops), or stumps, . . . unless otherwise agreed to by both parties in writing.” In response to inquiries this June, Bruce Nunn, NSDNR media relations advisor, said there was no whole-tree or full-tree harvesting on Crown land as part of forestry operations in 2016.

NSDNR declined to make Keys available for a phone interview about the current status of the NBM, but Nunn conveyed the following statement from him: “Since the nutrient budget model can be applied at different spatial scales, each with its own set of limitations and assumptions, we are currently evaluating how best to integrate the model into forest management planning. We are considering two approaches: the stand and landscape level. Part of this evaluation involves assessing whether sustainable productivity estimates are best generated at an eco-site level to be used as a reference value, or generated at an individual stand level (or a combination of both).”



Living Treaties: Narrating Mi’kmaw Treaty Relations

Marie Battiste, Editor

Published by Cape Breton University Press, 2016

Review by Jamie Simpson originally published in Rural Delivery, March 2017

Breathing Life into Historic Treaties

I have two piles of books: those I ought to read and those I want to read.  Once I cracked the cover of Living Treaties, it quickly moved from the former pile to the latter.  I expected a wealth of information presented in dry academic prose.  What I found was a wealth of information presented through diverse, engaging and personal stories of indigenous people and a few of their allies with ties to eastern Canada (and particularly Nova Scotia).

In the pages of these 17 stories, the authors explain and celebrate the legacy of the treaties negotiated between the Mi’kmaw people and Great Britain in the 1700s.  They pull passages of historical texts from dusty archives, draw our attention to key legal decisions affirming indigenous rights, and reminisce about their personal work to breathe renewed life into the treaties.  Stories of rights-affirming fishing trips slide seamlessly into stories of courtroom battles.  Yes, a few overly academic passages made their way into Living Treaties.  But what University Press publication doesn’t stray into deep waters?

Among many engaging stories, I was drawn to one about Mi’kmaw Grand Chief Gabriel Sylliboy, as told by Jaime Battiste.  In 1928, Grand Chief Sylliboy was charged with illegal trapping.  Sylliboy grew up in Whycocomagh, Cape Breton, and spoke little English.  Despite the language barrier, and in the face of pervasive racism and ignorance of aboriginal rights, Sylliboy decided to defend his and his people’s rights flowing from the 1752 peace and friendship treaty made with Great Britain.  How did he know of his rights, originating from treaties negotiated in the 1700s?  Although he was born more than one-hundred years later, since childhood he had been told the stories of the treaties made between his people and the King of England.  These stories were passed from generation to generation, through the oral tradition, and Sylliboy and other Mi’kmaw continued to live by the provisions of the treaties.

The judge found Sylliboy guilty as charged, claiming that the treaties were invalid.  Unfortunately, Sylliboy would not live to see the courts finally reverse the judge’s decision in his case.  In 1985, as Battiste explains, the Supreme Court of Canada noted that the language and reasoning used in the 1928 Sylliboy case “reflects the biases and prejudices of another era.”

As I read Living Treaties, I recalled a conference I attended once in Eskasoni, Cape Breton, where I listened, for the first time in my life, to someone speaking Mi’kmaq.  In an epiphany of the obvious, it struck me that the words spoken by that woman were the words that had been spoken for thousands of years on this very land.  These were words passed down from mouth to ear to the present day, not functionally extinct as many of us might assume, yet how fragile they had become.

In Living Treaties, the authors demonstrate that Mi’kmaw identity today is not a last gasp, but rather a force patiently gaining momentum.  And the treaties are central to this struggle.  The book quotes Keptin Alex Denny of the Mi’kmaw Grand Council, who stated in 1976:

Our history and our allegiance are to this land and to no other. … Before the English and French came, we were here.  We are a pre-Confederation nation of peoples. … our ancestors exercised all the prerogatives of nationhood.  … We have paid a very grave and exorbitant price. … Our entire way of life, based on the land, was endangered and weakened by deliberate acts of destruction of the animals which sustained us and our movements were restricted so that our survival was made perilous and precarious.  Yet, we have survived. … our aboriginal rights … [are] the only avenue through which [we] can achieve social and economic justice.

The writers featured in Living Treaties include Stephen Augustine, dean at Cape Breton University; lawyer and professor Pam Palmater; Fred Metallic, a fisherman from Listuguj (in Quebec’s Gaspé); and Victor Carter Julian, a Mi’kmaw lawyer from Pictou Landing (and a former classmate of mine).  Editor and contributor Marie Battiste, a Mi’kmaw from Potlotek First Nation, Nova Scotia, and is currently a professor at the University of Saskatchewan.

Pick up this book and give it a read.  The stories of the Mi’kmaw peoples’ resilience and continued positive attitude in the face of such long-term adversity is both captivating and inspiring.

Hello!  Just a quick note to let you know that I’m teaching a weekend workshop on backyard forestry: February 11 – 12.  It’s taking place at the Deanery Project, on the eastern shore.  We’ll cover tree and shrub identification (yes, winter identification), basic forest ecology and forest management (with a focus on crop tree selection).




An SFI-certified whole-tree clearcut in Nova Scotia (Northern Pulp): makes you wonder what it would take to not be certified by SFI

Who says governments can’t move fast? Last March, Nova Scotia Natural Resources Minister Zach Churchill spoke proudly of the province’s decision to attain Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification for all Crown woodland in the western region, calling FSC the “gold standard.” Less than a year later, in February 2016, the same government announced it was not only dropping this commitment, but also dropping its existing FSC certification for the 92,000-hectare Medway District forest. Hold onto your hats!

Let’s break this down. Why did the province decide to pursue FSC certification for western Crown lands in the first place? Readers may recall an embarrassing episode in late summer of 2014, when the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) allowed Ledwidge Lumber to clearcut a 40-hectare tract of public forest bordering Lake Panuke that had been classified as “environmentally sensitive.” There was the expected outcry by those claiming the harvest amounted to mismanagement of Crown land. To mitigate the ensuing public relations fiasco, the government created the Mersey Woodlands Advisory Committee, which was tasked with conducting a review of the incident. In a press release that October, Churchill said his intention was “to ensure that Nova Scotians have a high level of trust and understanding of how the government manages its lands.”

The harvest review report, released in February 2015, highlighted the problem of public confidence in DNR. It stated: “… at the operational level, things are still running on the old rules.  … DNR staff should have sought more guidance on conservation measures before proceeding with the harvest.… In short, the rules were followed, but the rules have to change.”

The committee recommended that the government should, among other actions, obtain FSC certification for all Crown lands in mainland Nova Scotia. The report noted that “the FSC elevated level of environmental and biodiversity management, beyond SFI certification requirements, will assure Nova Scotians that the province is living up to its prior statement: ‘The Province of Nova Scotia is committed to sustainable forest management and endorses both SFI … and FSC ….’”

In its response to the committee’s report on Feb. 26, 2015, DNR stated that it had met with FSC to ensure it could maintain its current FSC certification for the Medway Forest. A week later, Churchill went a step further and announced that the province was “absolutely committed to pursuing FSC certification for public lands in western Nova Scotia.”

Perhaps Churchill was bolstered in his position by the fact that the province already had that one major chunk of land certified to the FSC standard. The province had inherited an FSC certificate for the Medway District when it purchased the former Bowater lands from Resolute Forest Products in 2012. The province maintained the certificate, and successfully passed a five-year review in 2014, meaning that the certificate was good until March 25, 2019. All DNR had to do was address any issues identified in the yearly “check-up” audits.

It’s not as if obtaining FSC certification for large industrial forestry operations is a new thing in Nova Scotia. In 2008, during its brief presence in Nova Scotia (2007-2011), Ohio-based NewPage Corp. obtained FSC certification for the 600,000-hectare “Big Lease” (comprising 40 percent of the province’s Crown forestland) in the province’s eastern region. The new owner of that lease, Port Hawkesbury Paper Ltd., has maintained FSC certification. Many observers consider it odd that the provincial government can’t maintain this standard for public land, while a “from-away” industrial forestry company can.



According to DNR, the decision to drop FSC and keep SFI certification for the Medway District amounted to an argument that one is better than two. The new minister, Lloyd Hines, issued a statement saying the move was meant to avoid “duplication,” adding that the SFI was adequate to meet “customer needs.” That was the extent of the official explanation for this major policy shift.

The unofficial explanation? Some in the industry suspect DNR was having trouble meeting the FSC standard during the most recent annual “check-up” audit on management of the Medway District, and dropped the certificate shortly before the auditor’s report was due to be released – sort of like dropping out of school before officially failing a class. By pulling out, DNR ensured that the audit summary report would not be made public.

Why did DNR have difficulty maintaining the “gold standard” certification? We’ll likely never know for sure. (Clearly it’s not something the province is proud of.) But industry players involved with the certification noted that DNR resisted fulfilling its obligation to meet with local forest ecology experts to help determine which lands in the Medway District are most environmentally significant and therefore deserving of lower-impact cutting practices.


FSC and SFI: Can you see a difference?


According to Nova Scotia’s Natural Resources Minister, Lloyd Hines, FSC and SFI forest certification amount to the same thing. Others beg to differ. While national and international conservation groups (Greenpeace, Sierra Club and the like) often argue that FSC is not stringent enough, they also routinely hold it up as the only credible forest certification system in the world. FSC, they point out, was developed by a diversity of groups representing the forest industry, conservation organizations, and social concerns such as local communities and aboriginal interests. SFI, on the other hand, was formed by the American Pulp and Paper Association in 1995, a few years after FSC.

Although SFI has now re-formed itself as an “independent non-profit organization,” some suggest it remains true to its industrial forestry roots. “SFI is a classic case of greenwashing,” says Matt Miller, a forester working with the Halifax-based Ecology Action Centre. “Greenwashing” is a term used to describe attempts to cover up poor environmental practices by using a “green” label.

But how have SFI and FSC certifications played out in Nova Scotia? Is SFI merely window dressing, or does it offer the public the same assurance of responsible forest management as FSC?



SFI’s Forest Management Standard applies to any SFI certification in North America. The same standard used to certify a forest in Nova Scotia is used to certify a forest in, say, Florida or Alaska. As one might imagine, this wide geographic scope means the standard is necessarily generic. It relies in part on requiring companies to develop their own policies and best management practices to address biodiversity conservation in their respective forest regions.  The standard does include some specific requirements, such as reforesting “final harvest” cut sites, protecting species at risk, identifying forests with exceptional conservation values, and setting aside any old-growth forests.

The FSC approach, on the other hand, is to allow the development of regional standards throughout the world, while ensuring that each regional standard is based on a common set of principles and criteria. The intention is to ensure some consistency among FSC standards, while allowing for necessary tweaks to account for differences in forest types.

FSC Canada has embarked on a process to develop one national forest certification standard, but with a few regionally specific indicators sprinkled throughout to account for regional differences. This new national standard won’t be implemented anytime soon, so the Maritime Forest standard remains in force for the foreseeable future.

One difference between FSC and SFI standards is volume. SFI’s North America standard weighs in at 12 pages, while the FSC Maritime Forest standard is a hefty 25 pages, plus a nine-page glossary. As might be expected, the FSC standard includes details specific to the Maritimes, such as requirements to restore Acadian Forest tree species, a near-prohibition on creating non-native or otherwise highly unnatural forest stands, as well as stand- and landscape-level objectives to encourage natural forests.

What about the hot-button issues like pesticides, clearcutting, and stand conversion?  The FSC standard requires companies to reduce and eventually eliminate the use of pesticides (including insecticides as well as herbicides). The SFI standard requires companies to minimize chemical use required to meet management objectives.

Neither standard prohibits clearcutting. SFI requires companies to “manage the size, shape and placement of clearcut harvests.” FSC allows clearcutting and other even-aged cutting practices where they are used to restore the natural forest type for a given area, such as sites that naturally support Jack pine, Black spruce, and Balsam fir.

SFI allows stand conversion, such as converting a site that’s naturally mixed hardwood to a conifer stand, provided forest types aren’t made rare in the region. FSC, conversely, requires forest managers to strive to approximate natural forest across the board.



We can piece together a picture of what forest managers were required to do to achieve and maintain FSC certification for the Medway District by reviewing the public summaries of the certification audits. The summaries show that harvesting and silviculture decisions were based on the identification of different zones according to their ecological importance and their suitability for different treatments according to DNR’s Forest Ecosystem Classification system.

Under FSC, the Medway forest managers also identified rare old-growth forest patches and reserved these from harvesting. Patches with significant ecological values – such as treed wetlands, areas next to streams and lakes, and forest with important wildlife habitat – were identified and reserved for partial harvest techniques only. The forest managers also identified specific trees to be retained as wildlife habitat, such as large nesting trees for birds. Buffer strips along waterways, which could be partially cut but not clearcut, were increased to 30 meters (from the 20-meter legal minimum), to provide better protection for wildlife that rely on riparian habitat.

Under FSC, the forest managers identified species at risk that might live in the forest region, and enacted management practices to identify and protect their habitat. Corridors of continuous forest cover between ecologically important areas were identified and protected from clearcutting. The forest managers also documented the quantity of pesticides used, demonstrating a steady decrease, from 2,200 litres in 2008 to zero litres in 2012, 2013, and 2014.

The FSC certification audits also identify ways in which the province did not meet the standard. In 2013, during a five-year evaluation, auditors identified 11 “minor non-compliances.” These ranged from not ensuring that procedures to identify and protect important wildlife habitats were actually being carried out, to not revising management plans to restore ecological values to the forest, to not having a procedure in place to track harvested forest products to ensure they are properly labeled as originating from an FSC-certified forest.

In 2014, an annual “check-up” FSC audit identified two major non-conformances and six minor non-conformances, including not cooperating adequately with local non-government experts to help identify areas of forest with exceptionally high conservation values.



The 2014 annual SFI surveillance audit – incidentally conducted by the same auditors who conducted the FSC audits – states that the forest managers had complied with local laws; that cutover areas were assessed for whether or not they should be planted; that buffers were left along highways for “aesthetic” reasons; that DNR was conducting some forestry research; that no one had called the SFI hotline to report infractions of the standard; that First Nations values were considered during harvest planning; and that some sort of internal auditing was taking place (although what was being audited was not explained). The audit also noted DNR’s efforts to train harvesting contractors and encourage partial harvesting, as well as its support for a community forest and a forestry initiative by the Mi’kmaq.

With respect to corrective actions, the SFI auditor issued the forest managers of the Medway District one minor non-conformance in 2014 for neglecting to submit their 2013 annual progress report. The managers were given one “key opportunity for improvement,” which was to “consider comparing the list of applicable legislation in WI-system-03 to the list on the DNR document management manual for the Department of Natural Resources,” whatever that means. And that was it.

What about other SFI audit reports? SFI does not require that summaries of audits be made available to the public. DNR released the 2014 audit described above, but has yet to release any others. FSC, on the other hand, requires its auditors to release public summaries of all audits carried out.

Based on a comparison of SFI’s generic standard and FSC’s Maritime Forest standard, it appears FSC places a greater emphasis on promoting natural forest characteristics and conserving wildlife habitat. Based on the one Medway District SFI audit summary released to the public, it seems the audit was less rigorous than FSC in terms of assessing on-the-ground conformance with the standard, and in issuing meaningful demands for corrective action. Perhaps another indicator of the relative rigor of the two certification schemes is that some controversial forest cutting in Nova Scotia, such as whole-tree clearcut harvesting by Northern Pulp Corporation, has the SFI stamp of approval.




Who wants to learn more about forests? Who doesn’t!? Come join me for a weekend workshop, June 24-26, at the Harrison-Lewis Centre, South Shore Nova Scotia.IMG_6260

“We’ll spend a bit of time in the classroom discussing basic forest ecology and woodlot management, and we’ll spend a lot of time in the woods getting close and personal with some of Nova Scotia’s finest biodiversity. Come away from the weekend knowing how to identify our trees and common forest plants, a better understanding of how our forests tick, and how to think about working with your own forest. Jamie is a professional forester with a background in forest ecology. He’s the author of two books on our eastern forests, “Restoring the Acadian Forest: A guide to forest stewardship for woodland owners in Eastern Canada,” and “Journeys Through Eastern Old-Growth Forests,” both with Nimbus Publishing. He also has a degree in law, but asks that this not be held against him. Enrollment limited to 14 participants.”

While not exactly about forests, perhaps this is worth sharing anyway.  It’s a video of a talk I gave last year about environmental rights in Canada  — rather, the lack of environmental rights in Canada (and just recently uploaded).  There is mention of forests: I talk about a lawyer in the Philippines who saved some old-growth forest using his country’s environmental rights laws.

Here’s a link to a CBC article on a recently released report I wrote on the carbon emissions and biodiversity impacts of forest biomass energy in eastern Canada.  In short, burning trees to heat buildings can reduce carbon emissions, while burning trees for electricity can increase emissions for decades.  Because biomass cutting can lead to removal of almost all woody material from a site, the impact on biodiversity can be devastating.