In 2008, Nova Scotia’s Department of Natural Resources (now the Department of Lands and Forestry) set out to create The Path We Share, a natural resources strategy setting long term goals for our province’s forestry sector and its biodiversity, among other things. This document, released in 2011, attempted to strike a long sought balance between economic demand and ecological realities, and its formation had several steps.
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 2011-2020 with the express goal of making Nova Scotia one of the cleanest and most sustainable environments in the world, and reigning supreme among its recommendations was the swift and dramatic reduction of clearcut forestry across Nova Scotia.
But that never happened. I remember the August day in 2016 when the Lands and Forestry quietly released its Five-Year Progress Report, in which many of the key recommendations of The Path We Share were unceremoniously dropped.
“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 clearcutting to no more than 50 per cent. We understand now that the decision to clearcut (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, clearcutting could have a negative impact.”
The wayward rage inspired by these words is still fresh for me, even years later. Clearcuts makes up more than 90 per cent of provincial harvests. The percentage of old growth forest in our province once stood between 25-75 per cent, but now it’s something like 0.6 per cent. 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, inspiring vocal opposition from a growing number of community groups. Never in my entire career have I heard a single independent scientist in the fields of biology or ecology suggest for a moment that clearcutting – the harvesting relic running rampant through our province – could be beneficial; in fact 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 was, to me, deeply disturbing. The Path We Share died with this paragraph, after years of investment and then years of lethargy.
When the Lahey Report was commissioned (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 – clearcutting 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, then. 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 an overdue summer. This time must go differently. Nova Scotians should be heard through their local newspaper, in the office of their MLA or else through any of the public oppositions to clearcut forestry sprouting across the province.
Only 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 healthcare, 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. I’ve been assured 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.
In order 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.
Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes. This article was originally published with Halifax Magazine.