Letter from a Private Woodlot Owner

December 31, 2019

Dear Premier McNeil:

I am writing to you again in the capacity of one of 30,000 private woodlot owners in this Province (many of whom are deeply concerned with your recent decision) and in no other capacity. I watched your news conference on December 20, 2019 with profound disappointment, shock and disbelief. I am deeply troubled by your decision regarding Northern Pulp (N.P.), a lack of satisfactory alternate plan, and many of your comments, in general. Your decision could potentially bring tremendous hardship upon many honest, hardworking people in rural Nova Scotia. The economic impact is obvious and widely discussed. It involves 11,000 direct jobs and 33,000 indirect jobs of Nova Scotians. These are innocent and honourable people who were deeply dedicated to building a better future for their families and their Province. I fear you have made some grave mistakes here. In terms of rural Nova Scotia, I fear you have set it on a path of destruction. How and why did it come to this? Why are we at this place at this time? I will first address your news conference.

Given that this is such a critical issue to rural/small town Nova Scotia, please permit me to raise a number of issues. And to use your words, “let me be clear”:


1. You adamantly repeated that N.P. had 5 years to obtain and start construction of a new treatment facility. Is this actually true? Let’s have a closer look at the timeline. There are several issues here, but I will only deal with three periods of time as follows:

(a) I understand that the Boat Harbour Act received Royal Assent on May 11, 2015. With this piece of Legislation, May 11, 2015 is also the commencement date. As you know, Royal Assent in Nova Scotia is the day upon which the Lieutenant Governor signs the final version of the Bill and the Bill is then referred to as an Act. In other words, it is the day upon which a bill becomes part of the law in Nova Scotia. Therefore, it seems logical that May 11, 2015 is when the clock started to run. With a termination date of January 31, 2020 in the legislation, N.P. had immediately lost 3 1⁄2 months (not an insignificant amount of time) through no fault of its own, but rather, through your government’s legislative timing. If N.P. was truly given a 5 year period, then the Boat Harbour closure date should have been May 11, 2020. Do you agree, if so, on a go forward basis should your narrative atleast be that N.P. was given 4.7 years and not 5 years.

(b) Secondly, following Royal Assent on May 11, 2015, the timeline reflects that N.P. engaged in a 9 month process with the Minister to obtain Industrial Approval for the plant. Eventually, in February of 2016, the Minister provided Industrial Approval. Now, having dealt with many business owners over the years, I can say that many of them
would not incur costs, in the context of N.P., to seek approval for a new treatment facility, unless and until the owner received Industrial Approval first to operate the mill on a go forward basis. Many would say that this was just prudent business.

(c) Thirdly, there is also the injunction issue and subsequent bad weather. I suggest that a reasonable person can argue that N.P. lost upwards of 6 months of the allotted time here.

Given the totality of the foregoing, what was the result of your government’s good faith, due process and fairness of process assessment of timeline analysis in terms of any decision to “re-set the clock” or alternatively, allow a short extension? Will those results be made public? I, do not have the expertise to analyze this issue, but there are some very knowledge and talented lawyers who work for the Nova Scotia Government that perhaps do. There are also academics that have this expertise. Professor Wayne MacKay comes to mind. Based upon the foregoing, I suggest that one could reasonably argue N.P. only had 3 1⁄2 years of unfaulted time. Furthermore, I understand that immediately after the Boat Harbour Act became law, N.P. publicly stated it would attempt to meet the deadline but it was likely not enough time (see also law amendments committee record before the bill became law and government comment at time of 3rd reading favorable to N.P.). Is this part of your recollection? It begs the question as to the extent to which you consulted all stakeholders before enacting the legislation. Please provide clarity on that issue to those Nova Scotians impacted by your decision.

2. In terms of the approval process itself for the new treatment facility, you said that there was an initial assessment followed by a Focus Report. You were very animated when talking about the Focus Report in that there was “some” information but not enough and that we are not even close to getting out of Boat Harbour. You also said that N.P. is now being asked for an Environmental Assessment Report which will take atleast 2 years. With respect sir, a reasonable person can argue that those negative comments and that negative layperson assessment is at considerable variance with how the Minister of Environment characterized the Focus Report and timeline. He was much more positive in his assessment. As I understood it, he said N.P. provided good information but that he needed more. He also said he would provide N.P. with an extension of up to 2 years to complete that new assessment. In the absence of any other information, this seems like a balanced, prudent approach for the Minister to take to get it right. On December 20, 2019, how were you able to determine that it would take N.P. atleast two years to complete the new reporting because at that time I don’t know if N.P. itself knew the precise and specific details of what it had done wrong or what was missing from the Focus Report? I suggest there was no way to determine on December 20, 2019 how long N.P. itself would take to correct the deficiencies. Should not N.P. have had a reasonable opportunity to weigh in on this issue? It could take 6 months or no more than a year to satisfactorily complete. However, you said it would take at least 2 years. How did you know that?

And, of course, N.P. will likely say that substantial resources of time and money went into preparing that Focus Report which they determined in good faith would provide a path for approval. I will leave N.P. to speak to these issues.

Given this apparent chasm between your position, that of the Minister (and Department of Environment by extension) and N.P., a reasonable person can (and in the absence of further relevant information) suggest that something does not seem right here. What accounts for these ostensibly significant discrepancies? Since your decision will potentially inflict unrecoverable hardship upon many in rural Nova Scotia, you, atleast, owe them the courtesy of getting some satisfactory additional answers. A reasonable person would suggest that there be a full independent, arms-length, comprehensive, transparent accounting of what happened here including all interactions with N.P. and the Nova Scotia Department of Environment (and any and all external reviews of the Focus Report solicited by the Department of Environment) (and the Minister and you by extension). Furthermore, that these findings should be made public. Please confirm to those Nova Scotians most impacted that you will commit to this process.

Additionally, on a “going forward basis”, N.P. be given clear, concise and final direction from the Department of Environment regarding what was wrong with the Focus Report and what would be required for approval.

3. You characterized responsibility in this matter as “this squarely falls on the shoulders of the company” and “that’s not on us”. I found your tone somewhat combative, perhaps not the best approach when the livelihoods of so many innocent hardworking rural Nova Scotians hangs in the balance. And were your statements actually accurate? Does the evidence actually support your assertions to raise them to the level of fact? Firstly, when you say “that’s not on us”, you mean your government and not Nova Scotians generally, correct? Secondly, does this mess actually fall squarely on the shoulders of N.P.?

In point of fact, there are plenty of parties that had a hand in us arriving at this place at this time. Among others, they include all previous provincial governments back to 1967 who presumably, when it was required, gave the pulp mill of the day industrial approval. These pulp mills operated on the watch of all three major political parties in the Province. They also include all the previous pulp mill owners. They include the federal governments of the day, just to name a few. And, of course, there is the issue of the lease indemnity agreement with an expiry date of 2030 which many in the industry viewed as protecting the forestry industry until atleast the year 2030. But this is the hand we have been dealt and collectively we must try to deal with the immediate needs of those people most impacted. I am sure, down the road, there will be plenty of debate as to why we got here, was it necessary and could it have been avoided. For now we need all three political parties to work together for a more positive outcome. We can fight about the politics at a later date.

To fully understand this issue, I suggest we need to have a close examination of what you said at the news conference relative to the timeline between December 17, 2019 and December 20, 2019. At the news conference, you did say that N.P. had 5 years to obtain approval and “start” construction of a state of the art treatment facility. One could reasonably infer from that statement that construction did not have to be completed before the expiration of the 5 years. By inference then, if the Minister had granted approval on December 17, 2019, you were open to an extension. N.P. could easily meet the threshold of starting construction before January 31, 2020. If an extension was not on the table for discussion should N.P. had received approval on December 20, 2019, then one can reasonably argue that you should have articulated this several months ago to those most impacted to allow them reasonable notice to seek other livelihood.

Given that there was no approval, but meaningful, positive comments by the Minister of Environment regarding the Focus Report (and it being unclear at that point how long N.P. would need to satisfactorily address the deficiencies) you presumably took a day or so to reflect upon whether you would grant an extension in these circumstances. Once you made the decision not to grant an extension and instead pull the trigger on this matter you had about a 1 1⁄2 days or so to decide on the alternate plan for rural Nova Scotians. I have played your news conference a number of times. I suggest to you, it shows little if any, material planning on your part before December 17, 2019 regarding the alternate plan. You have known for 5 years that this was a possible outcome. Are you prepared to share with Nova Scotians complete details of your detailed planning (starting on May 11, 2015) regarding the alternate scenarios?

In point of fact, a reasonable person would argue that the extension option had been in the mix for some time now. You knew it would take 18-24 months for N.P. to construct the new treatment facility. That means you knew 1 1⁄2 to 2 years ago you would need to grant N.P. some sort of extension if it had obtained approval prior to January 31, 2020 or in the alternative, you would need an alternate plan. In terms of a short extension (18-24 months), there was a narrow but potentially critical window available. Boat Harbour is not yet ready for cleanup. Media have widely reported that the cleanup is 18-24 months away. Boat Harbour still continues to function with full environmental compliance as I understand it. This extension would have, at most, only added 2%-3% to the overall timeline of the use of Boat Harbour since 1967, but it would have provided critical time to those impacted the most to reasonably and orderly transition themselves and their families to another livelihood. But you have denied them of that opportunity by taking the extension option off the table and not signalling several months ago to those most impacted your alternate plan for them and the long term transition to some greener forest for Nova Scotians you’re planning for us.

Given the foregoing, I suggest that one can reasonably argue that you may have decided the fate of thousands of rural Nova Scotians after a 11⁄2 day or so discussion period. We are not talking about whether these people would get a 1% raise or a 5% raise. We are, however, talking about the sudden and unceremonial dismissal of thousands of innocent and hardworking rural Nova Scotians over the Christmas holidays (who are creating real wealth for this Province). In that context, many would suggest that your alternate plan is grossly inadequate and at most is a modest start on the road to recovery for these people, people that I have proudly stood shoulder to shoulder with for many years to reshape our forests for greater economic and environmental benefits for all Nova Scotians.

What additional commitments are you prepared to announce immediately to fully protect all persons impacted by your decision to give them some measure of comfort? These are the people who were doing the heavy lifting to make our forests stronger and more dynamic. These people are now in an extraordinarily short time box in terms of earning a meaningful livelihood.

Well, where do we go from here? You said that we cannot continue to rely upon N.P. as the sole purchaser of chips/pulpwood (it purchases 1.3 million tonnes of this product annually). We must diversify you said. Okay, then what is the plan? It is critical that all the sawmills continue to operate but they need the chips/pulpwood issue resolved immediately. You have about 2 weeks to sort out this issue. I am told that N.P. stopped taking pulpwood on December 24, 2019 and will stop taking chips on January 4, 2020.

In your news conference, you laid out 3 possible options to solve the chip/pulpwood issue. Let’s take a closer look at those 3 options as follows:
(i) You suggested that the wood chips could be sold to GNTI. I am told that GNTI only ships hardwood chips. The sawmills in question produce softwood chips. In addition, what orders does GNTI currently have on their books for 2020?

(ii) You talked about 6 biomass plants in Nova Scotia to take the chips/pulpwood. I am told that the 6 biomass plants are atleast 1 year away from construction and when fully operational, they will only consume 0.2% of the 1.3 million tonnes N.P. purchases annually. To illustrate the sheer magnitude of what N.P. purchases, we would need 3000 of these biomass plants.

There is also a larger question here. Please take a look at the experience of the Northern Eastern United States. They have gone down the biomass plant path for years at substantial cost to taxpayers and have finally concluded that this path does not satisfactorily address relevant economic and environmental issues. It just has not worked for them (see attached materials). Do you want to take this Province down that path?

(iii) You talked about shipping the chips/pulpwood to foreign markets (i.e. Europe). I suggest that the European market is not an option. This Province is still under a federal quarantine for exporting green softwood (i.e. chips/pulpwood). But more to the point, there is no market for our product in Europe. I am advised by a German well connected to the forestry industry in Europe that last summer Europe was extraordinarily dry (climate change). One of the results of this was the worst beetle infestation ever recorded. This has resulted in an oversupply of softwood (including chips and pulpwood from their sawmills) which will last for atleast a decade according to European forestry experts. There is no market for us in Europe.

You now have a serious immediate problem. I do not have a solution for you regarding this issue. I know that the forestry industry itself is bouncing around a number of ideas which may or may not be acceptable to you. These ideas are above my pay scale and so I will not even attempt to articulate them to you. However, I suggest that you immediately have a roundtable with the forestry industry to find a viable and sustainable path forward. Based upon the information you provided publicly on December 20, 2019, at present, I suggest a reasonable person would argue that you do not have a satisfactory solution to this issue.

As part of your alternate plan, you also talked about pivoting to a greener forest over the next 10 years for this Province. I can help you here. You may recall that you toured my woodlot in September 2019 (this was the second time you toured my woodlot in recent years). At that time, I provided to you my brush saw proposal (which I have attached herein). You complimented me on all the hard work I was doing to my 450 acres in building a stronger forest to fight climate change (which by necessity requires the removal of low grade forest product-pulpwood). You also said that my brushsaw proposal was well throughout, well researched and a very good report generally. I again thank you for your kind words. I showed you first hand the tremendous benefits of brush sawing. As you left my woodlot, you shook my hand and said arrangements would be made immediately to provide the federal government with my report with a view to cost sharing. You also said someone would report back to me shortly. I never heard from anyone. I re-submit my report for consideration.

As an aside, Sweden holds less than 1% of the world’s commercial forest areas, but provides 10% of the sawn timber, pulp and paper that is traded on the global market. One critical component of their responsible forest management is call “cleaning”. We call it brush saw work. It’s simple, a strong well managed and dynamic forest for the economy is also a strong and dynamic forest to fight climate change. Why are we not getting that in Nova Scotia? Sweden, a country with a population of only 10,000,000 people totally gets it. I am asking you to consider my proposal. Pick up the phone and call Mr. Trudeau to make this happen. It could be a plank in your greener forest vision. You and Mr. Trudeau can take the credit. I don’t care about that. That does not motivate me. I simply want our generation to say to the next one that we did something meaningful and tangible to fight climate change.

And finally, I want to talk about something that is very dear to me. Climate change in the context of Nova Scotia forests, and more to the point, Boat Harbour and N.P. In that regard, the difficulty I have is that without a proper, fully funded transition plan in place, we have traded one issue for another except the one we now have is exponentially greater and potentially will have a far greater negative impact on this province in the context of the fight against climate change. I am told that N.P., has not just been a pulp mill. It has been a full and active participant in the fight against climate change. Since the enactment of the Boat Harbour Act in 2015, climate change has accelerated tremendously. In 2019, more than ever, N.P. is needed in the fight against climate change. Why is that?
(a) Of the 10,000,000 trees planted annually in this province, I am told N.P. plants 6,000,000;
(b) It has an annual budget of $4,500,000 for replanting, reforestation and pre-commercial thinning;
(c) It purchases annually 1.3 million tonnes of chips/pulpwood, the lowest grade material in the forest and pays top dollar to the workers compared to all other Canadian jurisdictions (this puts $78,000,000 annually in the hands of rural Nova Scotians). In this regard, it plays a critical, vital role in the removal of low grade wood from the forest, something which must be done to build a strong forest. Mr. Premier, you saw this first hand in my woodlot.

There is no viable alternative market for this amount of this low grade product. The removal of pulpwood from the forest floor is essential to rebuilding a strong vibrant forest for the economy, but more importantly for me, to fight climate change. The harvesters, porters etc. are essential for the removal of this low grade wood from the forest. We do not have the
Premier McNeil December 31, 2019
Page | 8 majestic forest that Samuel de Champlain saw as he sailed up the Annapolis Basin in the early 1600s. There are those environmentalists who think that if we stop cutting entirely, the forest will somehow heal itself quickly with high quality trees. That is simply not going to happen. I have seen woodlots where no responsible management has been done and they are now full of dead and dying trees releasing carbon into the atmosphere and having a negative effect in the fight against climate change. My actively growing and responsibly managed 450 acres, on the other hand, is having the opposite effect.
I suggest that December 20, 2019 was a very sad day indeed for rural Nova Scotia’s fight against climate change. That day was also a failure of our generation to provide future generations with a more economically and environmentally sustainable forest. This new generation of forest workers are well educated, bright and hardworking. I will always stand shoulder to shoulder with them. We have reduced clearcutting from the high level in 1997 by a staggering 70% by 2017 without any direction from the Lahey Report or your government. Furthermore, over the past 25 years the majority of clear cutting has occurred on Crown Land (including on your watch) and not on privately owned land. (See Nova Scotia State of Forest Report produced by the Nova Scotia Government).
These hardworking young men and women now in the forest industry, many of whom are graduates from MCFT, UNB and Fleming College have brought innovative thinking to our forests with both economic and environmental components and along with the knowledge of a bunch of older people like me, we are making great strides in our forests. After your announcement, I fear that much of that will be lost unless we act quickly.
You indicated in your news conference that those affected should not worry. Your government will be there, in essence, to fully protect them. Rural Nova Scotians expect that you will fully honor that commitment. You told N.P. that there are “no short cuts” and it would be held to a standard. The same thing applies to your government. There should be no half measures. Rural Nova Scotians will not permit you or your government to take any “shortcuts”. Rural Nova Scotians will hold your government to a “standard”. Many people in this province are now facing substantial hardship. You must ensure that they are fully protected and compensated. What you have proposed so far is not a satisfactory solution for those most impacted. At most, it is a modest start.
Your plan is not a short transition with relatively minimal adjustment to a better place. This, potentially, is the permanent devastation of rural Nova Scotia. These honorable, hardworking people have no trust fund to go to and they do not deserve to be treated in this manner by their government. Instead they trusted their rural Nova Scotian Premier to have their back. And make no mistake, while rural Nova Scotia will suffer the most, every Nova Scotian will suffer to some degree.

There is urgency to resolve these issues immediately. And the needle has indeed moved. It’s called climate change acceleration and it affects us all. Climate change trumps everything.

I also want to talk abit about the narrative of some people in this Province who want no harvesting in the forest. Their argument is that once total cutting has stopped, the forest over the next 300 years will naturally heal itself with Acadian Forest trees. The only harvesting permitted would be by horse, for example, bucksaws, axes and some chainsaws. This is their vision.

The vision of these people is simply unattainable and not realistic. Given the acceleration of climate change, we do not have 300 years. We may not even have 50 years. We simply do not have the time to build that naturally developed forest. People like me have spent decades cleaning up the “forestry sins” of the 1700s, 1800s and early 1900s, long before N.P. ever arrived on our shores. Because of hundreds of years of cutting the best and biggest timber, we have been left with an overabundance of low grade wood, primarily balsam fir and white spruce which grows rapidly and often, at the age of 30-40 years it has gone to the “pole stage” (because of so many stems of that species per acre) and then dies or dies out naturally as a short life species. There is no room for many core Acadian Forest tree species (Oak, Yellow Birch, Rock Maple, Red Spruce, White Pine). When the low grade forest dies, it releases substantial carbon into the atmosphere and substantially the same low grade forest replaces it and the same problem repeats itself over and over again. The majority of the forests in this Province are still of this low grade quality. Many people, like me, were working very hard to break the horrible cycle and we were having good success. Because of our hard work, many more Acadian Forest trees have taken root in this Province. The good work we have been doing has accelerated the rebuilding of the Acadian Forest (the trees that are most beneficial in absorbing carbon and putting it back into the ground). Personally, I still have thousands of tonnes of low grade trees that must be removed from my woodlot to finish my work on a restored Acadian Forest. Because of your decision, I, and many like me, will not get to the finish line.

We should be moving in the direction of Sweden, Finland, Norway and Germany all of whom recognized several years ago the importance of removing low grade trees from woodlots. I am told those countries have rules that mandate the removal of that low grade forest product for economic reasons, but also, for climate change reasons. Those countries have determined that the importance of removing low grade trees is vital for their economy and to fight climate change. They are doing the heavy lifting to fight global climate change. Those countries, particularly Sweden, have developed state of the art technology to allow pulp mills to co-exist with those objectives. Why can’t we have that? Unfortunately, we continue to drop the ball on climate change. In the G20, we have the second lowest track record in meeting global climate change targets just ahead of Australia (which is currently suffering through its worst heat ever and its worst fire season ever – climate change).

Canada has the second largest forest land mass in the world. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves when it comes to fighting climate change. We can do much better. Politicians in our country continue to use flowery language regarding this issue. But practically speaking, their words are a bunch of garbage. That does not speak well of us and your announcement has the potential to end any meaningful effort by many rural Nova Scotians to effectively accelerate the building of a strong forest to combat an ever accelerating climate change. There is only two ways out of the climate change mess! (1). Lessen our carbon footprint (this will take time) (2). Build stronger forests quickly to absorb more carbon (as our UN has repeatedly emphasized). I fear Mr. Premier, that your announcement may have ended any meaningful contributions from rural Nova Scotians like me (and there are many) to support pillar number 2 Instead of becoming a leader in this regard, we have now become a failure. Not Good!

I am asking that you roll up your sleeves and get to work with all MLAs, and all stakeholders including the ones already noted herein, all municipal units, county wardens, local chambers of commerce, the Nova Scotia Federation of Agriculture and land developers (the latter two always need a market for their forest products when land is cleared) to find a better path forward. In my view the one you have set us on is simply not acceptable. In point of fact, it is potentially devastating for rural Nova Scotia and our fight against climate change.

We are now in a mess, we need a much better path forward, preferably one that protects our forests, our rural community and provides a path forward for N.P. which plays a critical role in our forests, economy and environment.

Will you guarantee to ensure all the sawmills in this Province remain operational and we have a viable and sustainable market for all of our pulpwood at comparable prices to what N.P. has provided while we transition to the greener forest you are planning for us over the next 10 years?
I look forward to particulars of your government’s revised long term path forward for providing a permanent satisfactory solution for those most impacted.
I reserve the right to provide further comment at a later date, if necessary.

Stephen I. Cole
A very unhappy, disappointed and concerned woodlot owner in rural Nova Scotia.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top