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Crown Land Lease Revision Connected to Port Hawkesbury Mill is Needed, Overdue

1961 Land Lease to Stora Expired Last Year, No Longer Reflects Current Conditions, say EAC's Miller & Plourde

by Miles Howe

Jack Pine Photo: Jonathan
Jack Pine Photo: Jonathan

“In 1961 we leveraged a tremendous amount of Crown Land to get a company to come to Nova Scotia,” says Matt Miller, Forestry Program Coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax. “The focus was only on jobs and wood supply, and we gave them complete and utter control of 40% of the Crown Land in the province, 1 in 9 acres.”

The company in question, the Finland-based Stora Enso, has been gone from Nova Scotia for several years, having sold its key asset, the Point Tupper pulp and paper mill near Port Hawkesbury, in Cape Breton, to Ohio-based Newpage in 2007. Newpage inherited the Crown Land along with the mill purchase, but amidst slumping sales and cries of 'foul' over escalating power bills, the mill went into receivership in 2011.

Enter Stern Partners, headed by multimillionaire paper mogul Ron Stern. Stern has emerged as the buyer of choice for the shuttered mill, and while details of the purchase are yet to emerge, Stern has let it be known that the workforce, which at the time of Newpage's demise stood at about 600, stands to be halved. Stern will now enter into negotiations with the province to hammer out the deal, and one of the key items on the table will be the 1961 Crown Land lease, which actually expired in 2011. Many independent woodlot owners, including Miller, would like to see the deal revisited, and become more reflective of 2012 conditions.

“We are expecting this government to negotiate a new agreement that doesn't sell the whole farm,” says Miller. “That means that one company doesn't have full control over that asset. That means that their responsibilities have to go far beyond just wood supplies and jobs, to include what was embodied in the spirit of the Natural Resource Strategy, and that's two things; that Crown lands are managed to the highest standards possible; and that the public will have a say in how that happens.”

Phase 1 of the Natural Resource Strategy, in 2009, was the last example of public consultation ever undertaken by the Dexter government. Many blame this recoil from government-public interaction on the fact that when the Nova Scotia public spoke up, which they did in the thousands in the case of the NRS, they demanded something the Dexter government didn't want to hear. They demanded stewardship and accountability of the province's forests, and public interaction in the process. If there were a time to make amends with the original intent of the NRS, Dexter and company might seize the day and revisit the land lease that now needs their attention.

“The logic of ever-shrinking workforce, ever-expanding, ever-increasing harvesting [suggests that] the government should tear up that old lease, and develop one that's modern and based on current conditions, including public expectations of how our Crown Land should be managed, which is to the highest level,” says Miller's co-worker, Wilderness Coordinator Ray Plourde. “We should not have to compensate any new owner that's going to scoop up that mill for pennies on the dollar in a bankruptcy fire sale.”

Fire sale aside, the provincial government has committed to earmarking 12% of Nova Scotia land, by 2015, as protected areas, under the Environmental Goals and Sustainable Prosperity Act of 2007. If the land lease is not revised, the government may well find itself legally bound to compensate Stern for ever-more-scarce Crown land, as it struggles to fulfil this mandate. Miller and Plourde agree that protected areas need to be exempted from the land lease before the deal with Stern is finalized.

As well, with the current state of Nova Scotia's “big three” pulp mills, one being in receivership (Newpage), one being responsible for one of Canada's worst environmental disasters (Northern Pulp and Boat Harbour), and one having just been modern-day union-busted and given tens of millions in taxpayer bailout money (Bowater), it may well be time to give the smaller players in the forestry business a chance at bidding for Crown Land.

“There's already some existing manufacturing infrastructure in Eastern Nova Scotia. There's a series of value-added hardwood mills.” says Miller. “They've traditionally been shut out of any allocation of wood from Crown Land. This is a perfect oppportunity for them to have access to that wood.”

“Smaller lease arrangements could be made for those local industry players that already exist.” says Plourde. “Hardwood mills that are making things like fine flooring, door and wall moldings, wainscoting, trim, and so on and so forth. They employ more people per unit of wood harvested, and they make a value-added product, so it's economically much better for the province. It would also allow for new enterprises to emerge, because they'd have some wood to access.”

Dexter has made it clear that the "big three" won't fail. The future of forestry in Nova Scotia suggests that now is the time to set the conditions for "small successes" that don't involve extreme environmental degradation and a steady, continuous, flow of taxpayer bailouts.


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Topics: Environment
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