Oops, down goes the old-growth forest! Controversial harvest raises questions about oversight and policy on Crown woodlands

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: