Forest policy can foster growth
Forest policy in New Brunswick is a complex mix of economic development and environmental policy. This is a demanding portfolio, and there are several issues that require attention from the new government.
Readers will not be surprised to learn that forest sector is in the midst of the most dramatic restructuring in its history. Employment and exports have declined steeply and a “recovery” will leave us with a very different forest economy. Our future forest will not be the engine of northern and rural economic development in ways that it has been in the past. But it does contain the seeds of a new economy based on renewable energy, climate change adaptation, life and materials science.
Governments from both parties have been quick to make subsidized loans and give grants and tax credits to improve the efficiency of existing mills and maintain employment to the extent possible. This satisfies short-term, local economic interests but it does not deal with longer-term, structural issues. Long-term growth in the forest sector depends on investing in research and technology that will develop new knowledge, products and processes. Carbon-neutral renewable energy, climate change adaptation strategies, bio-materials and technologically superior engineered wood products are examples of products and processes that can make New Brunswick a global leader based on forest science. The potential for new jobs in a “high-tech” forest sector that combines the life sciences with engineered materials is much greater than the potential for long-term employment in marginal sawmills. It should be readily apparent to the next government that the province must diversify its forest products industry if it is to address the long-term sustainability of the forest and forest dependent communities.
The basic tenure model is showing signs of distress. In New Brunswick, the government enters into long-term renewable leases with companies that operate mills. The companies pay the Crown for stumpage and manage provincial forests according to approved management plans. The companies and the workers pay taxes and create secondary jobs (retail, suppliers etc.) in their local community. Ideally, if the companies are profitable and the forest is well managed, the system is economically sustainable.
But the bankruptcies of Fraser Papers and Abitibi-Bowater and the abandonment of New Brunswick by several other multi-national paper and packaging firms illustrates what happens when firms are not profitable. New Brunswick has had a difficult time finding operating firms for some of its Crown licenses. Recently, Ontario and Quebec have both implemented significant changes in their tenure systems. During the course of the next four years, government will need to address this problem.
The new government can make significant improvements in the ways Crown forests are managed by paying more attention to all of the values they produce. It is quite likely that the economic value of drinking water, freshwater fisheries and forest-based recreation is equal to or exceeds the value of the wood products produced. But there are no reliable estimates of these values.
As the old adage says: “If you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” A more comprehensive approach to managing for multiple values is consistent with the attitudes expressed in the last comprehensive public survey on forest management.
The government should undertake a comprehensive review of private forests and their contributions to economic, social and environmental sustainability. Over the last two decades, government’s capacity to sustain private forests has steadily eroded. Several of the regional marketing boards are experiencing financial difficulties, and the availability of technical assistance and landowner education is at best weak. Private forest lands located near urban areas that are not profitable are being converted to subdivisions with the concurrent loss of the environmental values that they provide.
Following a year-long stalemate in the negotiations over market access, it would be naive to suggest that any government could resolve the decades-old dispute between the woodlot owners and mill owners in a single term. But a serious attempt at conflict resolution led by a neutral mediator would afford the next government the ability to say that they made a serious attempt.
From a broader perspective, it seems there is little discernible cross-sector learning within the institutions and industries that dominate life in rural New Brunswick. All three (agriculture, fisheries and forestry) must focus on sustainability: resilient ecosystems, profitable businesses and vibrant rural communities. Combined with environmental protection in general and energy policy in particular, the provincial government needs a way to coordinate these efforts and transfer the ideas and policies that work.
Don Floyd is the Interim Dean of the Faculty of Forestry and Environmental Management at the University of New Brunswick. This article was originally published in the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. Republished with author’s permission.