N.S. drafts updated old-growth forest policy, advocates say it doesn't go far enough

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This stand of old-growth forest contained one tree with an estimated age of 422 years old. (Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute - image credit)
This stand of old-growth forest contained one tree with an estimated age of 422 years old. (Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute - image credit)

A new policy for old forests is on the table, and the province wants to know what people think about it.

Public consultation on a draft policy for the protection of old-growth forests is open now until Dec. 8.

Alain Belliveau said he'll be submitting his feedback.

"It misses the mark in terms of actually supporting its top priority of protecting old-growth forests," Belliveau said in an interview.

A botanist by training and the curator of Acadia University's E.C. Smith Herbarium, Belliveau said he started studying the biodiversity of Nova Scotia's old-growth forests 15 years ago. Through that work he's familiar with past versions of the old-growth forest policy, the first of which dates back to 1999. The last update was made in 2012.

Belliveau said there are some good additions to the latest draft, including language about the indispensability of old-growth forests. Still, he said overall he thinks the policy falls short.

"They made the house a little prettier and tidier. But the foundation is still cracked and significant progress, I think, is still lacking."

Belliveau said he thinks the policy is biased toward harvesting because it excludes any area that has received silvicultural treatment or been harvested for timber within 30 years. That could lead to the exclusion of "lightly managed forests with lots of old-growth forest values," he said.

Belliveau said he was further disappointed with a line that says the minister of natural resources and renewables can remove protection from any old-growth forest area if he declares removal "to be in the public interest."

That includes for the sake of a development project. Belliveau said that concerns him because of the recent example of the Owls Head land being quietly removed from a list of areas up for protection by a previous Liberal cabinet. The justification was a golf course development proposal.

Belliveau said he would like to see a law, rather than a policy, on the books to protect Nova Scotia's old-growth forests so that protections would be more difficult to renege, and violations would have consequences.

Phlis McGregor/CBC
Phlis McGregor/CBC

Mike Lancaster echoed the desire to see the policy turned into legislation.

Lancaster is the co-ordinator at the Healthy Forest Coalition, one of more than a dozen stakeholders the province consulted in writing the new draft policy.

The others are:

  • The Biodiversity Council

  • Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute

  • Forest Nova Scotia

  • Northern Pulp

  • Parks Canada

  • Westfor

  • Irving

  • Medway Community Forest

  • Nova Scotia Nature Trust

  • Ecology Action Centre

  • Nature Conservancy of Canada

  • Port Hawkesbury Paper

  • Nova Scotia Federation of Woodlot Owners

  • Cape Breton Private Land Partnership

  • Confederacy of Mainland Mi'kmaq

  • Unama'ki Institute of Natural Resources

  • Mi'kmaw Forestry Initiative

"There's tweaks and adjustments [in the draft policy] that translate to some improvements … there's other areas where some of the underlying concerns I had with the previous policy are still present," Lancaster said.

"There's still a lot of room for improvement."

The draft policy includes a more detailed definition of old-growth forest. Among several other characteristics, the policy says an old-growth forest contains trees at least 100 to 140 years old, depending on the species.

Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute
Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute

Lancaster said that refinement to the definition is "a double-edged sword."

"Scientifically that's a valid thing and it's positive in the understanding of old-growth forest ecosystems," Lancaster said.

However, he said for some species he would prefer to see a lower age threshold. That's because of the damage the invasive insect, the hemlock woolly adelgid, could wreak on many of the province's oldest trees, eastern hemlocks.

"The vast majority of our old-growth forest is really under threat, so any species, any forest type that is not hemlock-dominated, we need to have a lower metric for conserving them. Otherwise we're not achieving the percentages that we're looking to protect of old-growth forest in Nova Scotia."

A positive addition, according to both Lancaster and Belliveau, is mention of how private land fits into the plan for protecting old-growth.

The province only has the authority to apply the policy on Crown land, but it notes about 63 per cent of all forested land in Nova Scotia is privately owned.

"We can't just do this on Crown land," said Peter Bush, manager of forest research and planning in the Department of Natural Resources and Renewables.

That's why the new policy lays out a commitment to work with private landowners and support them if in identifying and protecting old-growth stands.

Bush said one of his main goals in opening the policy to public consultation is to bring attention to the conservation potential in Nova Scotia.

No money has been set aside for the purpose, but Bush said buying private land containing old growth could be considered, given the right circumstances.

Bush said he thinks policy that encourages participation of private landowners has a better track record of success than legislation and enforcement.

The existing policy, he said, recently proved its worth — it helped identify a stand containing the oldest recorded tree in the Maritimes, a 532-year-old eastern hemlock near Panuke Lake, located northwest of Halifax.

The province is accepting written submissions by email to ecologicalforestry@novascotia.ca

Bush said he expects the policy to be finalized sometime in the new year, depending on how much feedback is received — the more that comes in, the longer it will take to review.

The draft policy calls for review every five years.

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