Sunday, September 26, 2021

St. Mary’s forestry facing collapse

Wood harvesters feel abandoned by government

  • February 17 2021
  • By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    

ST. MARY’S – The forest industry – which once employed hundreds of men and women across this lightly populated, densely wooded district – is collapsing under the weight of government policy, market turbulence and public opinion, say local operators.

“The industry is going downhill,” said Peter Archibald who, until recently, ran a harvesting business in Glenelg. “It’s not worth it.”

Added another veteran woodsman from the area, who asked not to be named, “That truck you see loaded with wood is just one haul away from shutting down. That’s how bad it is.”

The comments come one week after the provincial government temporarily suspended spring weight restrictions on heavy transports using public roads and highways. According to the announcement, the move was designed “as a way to support the forestry sector,” enabling it to get products to market more easily.

Said provincial spokesman Steve Warburton: “The permits allow the Department of Transportation Infrastructure and Renewal to formalize a frequent springtime request from contractors to move wood directly from a woodlot to the local mill, or to move equipment from one site to another… [The permits] will be reviewed again after this season.”

If, that is, there is another season. As recently as 10 years ago, the industry employed up to 300 people in St. Mary’s; the same number it employs in all of Guysborough County today, according to some estimates.

At one point, the area supplied as much as 30 per cent of the wood cut and processed by Port Hawkesbury Paper and Northern Pulp in Abercrombie, Pictou County. But, when the mill closed the last year, it curtailed most harvesters’ options, including Archibald’s.

“Suddenly, there was no [alternate] place to send second-grade [pulp] wood,” he said, adding: “I’ve worked in the woods since I was 12 years old, but I’m no longer in the forest industry. My gear was all sold recently.”

Archibald blames government for, he said, abandoning traditional harvesters like him: “They are not doing anything to promote the industry. You can’t get funding to do silviculture. Their regulations don’t allow you to do forestry work … They want retirees and vacationers. They don’t want us.”

The other forestry operator quoted for this story agreed. But he also points out that, while the provincial government has yet to see the “full effects” of the Northern Pulp decision, market turmoil is at least as worrying. Demand for pulpwood may have decreased along with prices, but the opposite is true for stud or construction-quality lumber. And that, he said, is creating even more precarious conditions for suppliers.

“The price on the high-grade stuff has been going through the roof,” he said. “Go get a two-by-four and it’s three times the cost of what it was a year ago. That’s great for now, but if that price drops – and it will – and you’re not making any money off your pulp wood … well … you are kind of screwed, aren’t you?”

The distortion is North America-wide – what one analyst recently called a “once-in-a- lifetime phenomenon” brought about by a surge in DIY home construction and limited access to supplies following the first wave of Covid-19 a year ago. Natural Resources Canada reports that Eastern SPF (spruce-pine-fir) is selling for about $1,300 per thousand board feet, compared with $550 a year ago.

Apart from government policy and market factors, the source said, “the real problem with this industry and why it’s not going to be around here in 10 years is the public. It’s the public and social media. They just don’t want us cutting wood anymore.”

Last January, the provincial government unveiled a new forestry transition team both to “support sector workers and businesses affected by closure of the Northern Pulp mill” and identify “longer-term and innovative approaches to support an ecologically sustainable and competitive forestry sector.”

At the time, Premier Stephen McNeil said, “As a government, we want and need a forestry industry in Nova Scotia because it helps drive our rural economy. I am confident we will find a path forward that balances economic growth and environmental integrity.”

As for the special move permits for the forestry sector this year, Warburton said, “Initially, the forestry transition team raised spring weight restrictions as an important issue… [It] now endorses the plan.”

Said Archibald: “It makes no difference to me. I’m out of it and I have no intention of getting back in.”