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.
WHY THE FLIP-FLOP?
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.