New players enter forestry sector near Miramichi

A purchase of 265 New Brunswick timberland properties in the Miramichi area involving German investors, a firm that partly owns the Toronto Maple Leafs and a flamboyant international land dealer has introduced new players into the province's forest economy.

It's generating curiosity but no immediate concern.

"I don't know anything, nothing" said Patrick Doucet, the general manager of the Northshore Forest Products Marketing Board, whose members also own forest land in the area.

"It's good to know. I'm glad I heard it. I didn't know it"

Nature Conservancy of Canada/Submitted

A CBC review of property and corporate records connected to the sale shows there were two transactions in December for a combined $12.3 million to buy more than 15,000 hectares of mostly forest in central New Brunswick. It covers a combined area larger than Grand Manan Island.

The majority of the properties sit within 20 kilometres of either side of Highway 8 between Doaktown and Miramichi.

Properties were sold by Fornebu Lumber Company Inc. Fornebu operates a major sawmill outside Bathurst that was not part of the sale.

The company also retained control of three large Crown land licences that gives it access to 900,000 hectares of provincially owned forest that feed its Bathurst mill.

Fornebu also buys wood privately from local sellers in central New Brunswick. Doucet said as long as that continues he is unconcerned with the change in ownership of the land.

"They (Fornebu) can do what they want with their properties," said Doucet. "As long as it doesn't affect our woodlot owners we're OK with that."

Trevor Dunn/CBC

Fornebu has operated in New Brunswick for the past decade and acquired most of the properties at the heart of the sale in 2009 from UPM-Kymmene when it ceased operations in the province.

Last June, Fornebu was absorbed by the Kilmer Group — a Toronto investment firm best known for its ownership stake in media companies and sports franchises including the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Raptors through Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment.

Kilmer installed one of its vice-presidents, Prasad Chandrakanthan (Chandra), as president of Fornebu in June 2018 and he signed off on the land sales in December.

Chandra did not return calls last week asking about the deal.

Even less is known about the group that purchased the land and why.

The transaction was facilitated by Halifax land broker Farhad Vladi. He is better known for finding private islands for wealthy European and Asian buyers.

Online pictures show Vladi posing with world leaders, royalty and celebrities at locations all over the globe.

But last winter he was focused for a time on far less glamorous pursuits — sizing up fir, jack pine and spruce trees in New Brunswick locations like Bartibog, Blissfield and Holtville.

Prasad Chandrakanthan/Submitted

Vladi's office said he was travelling in New Zealand this week and unavailable to speak.

But, in December, he was involved in setting up a company to buy the land — NBH Timberland (Nova Scotia) Ltd. — and briefly served as its president until the transaction with Fornebu closed.

Immediately following the transaction in January, Vladi was replaced as president of NBH Timberland by German businessman Stefan Buttgereit. Matthias Helmstetter, also of Germany, is the only other listed director.

Submitted

Corporate records show Halifax lawyer Gregory Auld as NBH Timberland's local agent in Canada. He did not immediately return a message asking about the company and its plans.

Vladi has an office in Germany and has brokered timberland deals in the region for Europeans before. In 2009, he arranged the purchase of 4,000 hectares of J.D. Irving Ltd. land near Digby, N.S., for a German businessman he said was looking for a retreat.

The sale agreements give Fornebu exclusive right to buy softwood off some of the parcels it sold until 2028, giving some hint the new owners plan to continue with forestry operations. But beyond that little is known about what, if anything, the sale means for central New Brunswick forestry.

The transaction is one of the largest land sales in the province since J.D. Irving Ltd. bought 90,000 hectares of forest from Bowater in 2006. Despite the amount of land involved, the purchase has mostly gone unnoticed

A spokesman for New Brunswick's Department of Energy and Resource Development said last week he was not aware of the sale and would need to look into it before offering comment.

In a statement released Tuesday morning, Energy and Resource Development Minister Mike Holland said the province has no knowledge of what the new owners will do with the lands they purchased but speculated there may be more to the deal than just forestry.

"We are uncertain of the new owner's future plans, but do know that much of the private property involved in this business-to-business deal is riverfront," said Holland in a statement.