Repeating history

A clear cut in Nova Scotia. Photo: Zac Metcalfe

In 2008, Nova Scotia’s natural-resources department (now the Department of Lands and Forestry) created The Path We Share, a natural-resources strategy setting long-term goals for the province’s forestry sector and its biodiversity. Released in 2011, the plan attempted to strike a balance between economic demand and ecological realities.
Phase one entailed public engagement, during which thousands of Nova Scotians called for fundamental changes to the management of provincial resources. Phase two called on experts and shareholders from several fields to serve on steering committees, all of which wrote reports to DNR so phase three could commence: the formation of the final strategy.
The Path We Share was intended to roll out from 2011 to 2020 with the goal of making Nova Scotia one of the cleanest and most sustainable environments in the world. Chief among its recommendations was the swift and dramatic reduction of clear-cut forestry across Nova Scotia.
But that never happened.
In August 2016, Lands and Forestry quietly released its Five-Year Progress Report, dropping many of the key recommendations of The Path We Share.
“Times have changed,” it reads. “We’ve learned more. We now have a better understanding of what it means to take an ecosystem-based approach to land management. We committed to reducing clear-cutting to no more than 50%. We understand now that the decision to clear cut (or not) has to be made in a larger context. In some areas, clearcutting will not have an impact on the total health of the forest—it may even improve it. In others, clear-cutting could have a negative impact.”
Clearcuts makes up more than 90% of provincial harvests. The percentage of old growth forest in our province once stood as high as 75%, but now it’s around 0.6%. Many dozens of our native species are formally at-risk, with several more on deck for designation. The degradation of provincial forests has converted once proud ecosystems into moonscapes.
Never in my entire career have I heard a single independent scientist in the fields of biology or ecology suggest for a moment that clear cutting could be beneficial; they say it’s the principle factor in the dismantling of our natural heritage. That our leadership is capable of such a regressive and absurd paragraph is deeply disturbing. The Path We Share died with this paragraph, after years of investment and then years of lethargy.
When government commission the Lahey Report (an independent review of forestry practices in Nova Scotia) I was angry all over again. It seemed our leadership was unhappy with The Path We Share and hoped Lahey would have a different result, which, largely, it didn’t: clear cutting was again identified as a rusted tool chronically overused. Lahey was released almost a year ago now, and still nothing significant has changed.
Believe it or not, I’m sympathetic to our political leadership and the departments at their relative command. Change is not easy, not quick, and subject to the displeasure of countless stakeholders; juggling that mess is no small undertaking.
I take issue, however, when our best blueprints for sustainable change are kept on the bench until time and shifting politics kill them, such as with The Path We Share. Already the conversation seems to have drifted in that direction, with lacklustre dialogue from the same people who commissioned Lahey, and a slow surrender to the complexities involved with its implementation.
The Lahey Report mustn’t die. By 2025 we need it to be in force, rather than shambles, the only mechanism for which seems to be the people of Nova Scotia. When The Path We Share was formally abandoned in 2016 it met with little to no public outcry, except from those members of the conservation community I interviewed at the time, struggling to capture the attention of media while everyone enjoyed summer. This time must go differently. Nova Scotians must speak out.
Recently the Healthy Forest Coalition, a group focusing public concerns over forestry, decided to apply pressure of their own. A letter they drafted to every MLA in the province asked them three simple questions: do they acknowledge the scale of the problem and its consequences, do they accept Lahey’s recommendations, and what steps will they take to ensure forestry reform?
The goal was to get a sense of each individual MLA’s understanding of, and commitment to, sustainable forestry. Had they instead asked about health care, agriculture, fisheries or jobs I expect it would have worked, with enthusiastic and dutiful responses from every MLA. Not so with forestry.
Instead each of these MLAs passed the buck, up and up and up the ladder until each sitting party gave its own collective and carefully curtailed response, expounding on the small moves they’ve already made, the variety of opinions at play and the need for patient decision making, a patience not being applied with the same zeal to clearcut forestry. These responses contained nothing new of substance, no new commitments and no trace of the various opinions making up each party.
I know this sort of polispeak well, having written to the Department of Lands and Forestry myself this spring, my concerns met with a torrent of words carefully designed to mean nothing.
For there to be lasting change in the way we manage our forests, the reports we draft and the recommendations they entail need to be given legs, need to stick, not only with thorough implementation but also legal might. The Path We Share is beyond help, but Lahey may yet endure, provided we continue to compress its chest and force air into its lungs. So have a say, and if you need help finding the words, the Healthy Forest Coalition has a few doozies on their website.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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