Crown land deal on hold pending First Nations consultations

A pending long-term lease for management of some Nova Scotia Crown lands by a consortium of mills is delayed as the provincial government continues consultations with First Nations leaders.

WestFor, an organization comprised of 13 mills, has been working with the Department of Natural Resources to negotiate a long-term lease in the range of 10 years to manage Crown land in western Nova Scotia, including the former Bowater lands. The land in question is about 566,000 hectares.

Respectful of the process

It was initially hoped the lease would be signed by last December, but an extension of the existing interim licence WestFor operates with was recently granted until September because consultation work with First Nations has not been completed.

"The law of the land requires recognition of the Aboriginal ownership and rights, et cetera, associated with the lands of Nova Scotia," Natural Resources Minister Lloyd Hines said in an interview at Province House Tuesday.

"We take that very seriously and have to make sure that we're respectful of that process and give the Aboriginal community an opportunity to respond and participate in this process when we're making long-term or even short-term commitments on land."

'It got really quiet'

Waycobah First Nation Chief Rod Googoo, who holds the forestry portfolio for the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq Chiefs, said consultation work has been happening. However, it's slowed as a provincial election looms.

"There has been no movement at all," he said. "It got really quiet."

The delay means there's every possibility the agreement could be finalized by someone else, should Hines or the Liberals not be re-elected to government.

Other parties' views

Tory Leader Jamie Baillie said he's supportive of a long-term lease and working with WestFor.

"Quite frankly, we need those jobs. We need an organized way of managing the western lands that WestFor is negotiating with the government on."

Baillie said any lease must balance jobs in the forest with environmental protection of the forest and acknowledge the rights of the Mi'kmaq.

Consultation is key

NDP Leader Gary Burrill said the key for him is that consultation not be rushed. That means taking the time to talk with First Nations and people wishing to use the land for recreational purposes.

An added concern for Burrill is that after the initial deal with WestFor was inked, the Liberals walked away from a clear-cutting reduction plan in the last natural resources strategy.

"Those clear-cut limits came out of one of the most complete, consultative, democratic processes over multiple years that we have ever seen around natural resources in the province."

If and when an agreement with WestFor is finalized, it will be in addition to an existing agreement with the Medway Community Forest Co-op and the Mi'kmaq forestry agreement, which is currently being negotiated.