There’s a lot of hand-wringing these days about the state of forestry in New Brunswick with people like Premier Blaine Higgs warning that a “crisis” is looming due to falling lumber prices, ongoing U.S. tariffs and impacts from the carbon tax. The recent closure of a St. Stephen particleboard plant is seen as just the tip of the iceberg.
But private woodlot owners in this province know all too well about crisis. Provincial governments, bowing to pressure from industry, have been steadily increasing the access mills have to Crown wood. The government’s own figures show more than half of harvested timber now comes from Crown land, while about 15 per cent comes from private woodlots.
This approach has landed us in hot water, particularly in the softwood lumber dispute with the United States and the imposition of tariffs on timber exports. Canada recently scored a win in this dispute with a bi-national NAFTA panel, but it’s an interim ruling and no one is sure when, or if, the tariffs will be lifted. As we know, the duties didn’t need to be in place at all if the province had followed its own Crown forest legislation and ensured competitive fairness for the private woodlots. Our members know how impossible it is to compete with the low prices created by a market saturated with Crown wood.
It seems the only time forestry is considered to be in crisis is when the mills are hurting. Over the past decade, private woodlot owners have lost hundreds of millions of dollars in sales, and marketing boards have lost millions of dollars in operating revenue.
That, in turn, precipitates substantive losses to the province and to taxpayers with forgone tax revenues and artificially low royalty rates on Crown wood.
That’s a crisis, and a crisis brought on by government inaction.
The political will is always there to meet and talk, but we need to accelerate to action.
We have been optimistic about the Higgs government, which has just completed its first full year in office. The minority Tory government has promised to overhaul the almost 40-year-old Crown Lands and Forests Act, updating it and making it more relevant to today’s realities. In the days leading up to last September’s election, Mr. Higgs said he understood the public’s concern about herbicide spraying, clearcutting and the fact that private woodlot owners “feel left out and marginalized.” But, so far, there has been little action.
There was a roundtable discussion on private woodlots held Sept. 10 in Fredericton with participation from industry, contractors, marketing boards, the Higgs government, our federation and individual private woodlot owners. Minister of Energy and Resource Development Mike Holland attended along with several department officials.
There are indications there will be more of these meetings, although there is no specific timetable. Despite the fact that dialogue is always welcome, there is understandable skepticism in our offices and in the homes of woodlot owners who have witnessed years of talk but no action to address the lack of balance in New Brunswick’s forestry sector.
Even this important first roundtable skirted the key issue of marketing wood, preferring to address the low-hanging fruit – the need for better information and long-term planning. The political will is always there to meet and talk, but we need to accelerate to action. Time and time again, we have talked with government and proposed solutions. It seems there is only real action when big industry applies pressure to have its needs and wants addressed.
Excessive use of public forests by private industry.
However, the tide finally may be turning against the excessive use of public forests by private industry. Growing calls for more conservation and less herbicide spraying and clearcutting should lead the provincial government to look at ways to increase the sale of wood from private land. We had a taste of this in the recent complaints from hikers visiting the top of Mount Carleton where they could easily see clear cuts running up to the edge of the park. The industry said it’s a sign of a healthy forest economy but to most people, it just looks like mismanagement of public resources.
None of this was in the scope of discussion for the roundtable in September. The inequity in the marketing of wood in New Brunswick, the lack of proportion for private wood sales, was clearly the elephant in the room but it was not addressed. If we’re going to meet, talk about issues and make decisions, there has to be the will to address central concerns and move ahead with solutions.
We need to stop beating around the bush in these roundtable discussions and get down to the serious business of fixing forestry, ending the crisis for private woodlot owners and creating a more balanced economy for everyone in this vital sector. So despite the skepticism, we look forward to more meetings. One day, we hope, they will bear fruit.
For the sake of our province’s future, they must.
Thank you for listening,
President, New Brunswick Federation of Woodlot Owners