The Dishonourable Honourables

Why are we cutting down our protected areas, right before we protect them? It has happened before in Joggins. And this month, yet another story came out about a golf course being plotted for an ecologically unique area, in Little Harbour, previously listed for protected designation. A former Liberal MLA, Michel Samson, was hired to lobby his former Liberal colleagues on behalf of a developer for this plan. It seems being a politician in Nova Scotia is no more than a key to the club for long term interference in our policies and programs. And our old forests that were to be conserved seem to be disappearing faster than before?

About a year ago, I wrote about the delay in getting a reaction from government on the Forestry Review by Professor Lahey. It had been months overdue, and then after it was published, the NS Liberals were holding back any opinion or reaction to it. While the people of Nova Scotia and multiple organizations gave their impressions and provided feedback, both favourable and not, everyone waited and waited, and the government kept silent on the report.

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Photo ~ Mike Lancaster

Then, finally, in December 2018, the Minister of Lands and Forestry, Iain Rankin, came out and stated the review would be accept as a whole, as written. The Government Response outlined initial steps that would be taken, describing the timeframe as at least a year, just to start implementing changes. Without rehashing the whole response, it was indicated that there would be a drastic reduction in clear cuts, and that would impact both crown and private lands. Okay. But here we are, a year later and we are waiting and waiting again. And the clear cuts continue.

The response said “The Department of Lands and Forestry will immediately (emphasis added) initiate revisions to its Forest Management Guide to place more emphasis on ecological values. The Forest Management Guide dictates the types of forest practices that can be used on Crown land. As revisions are implemented, this will have the effect of further reductions in clearcutting on Crown land, particularly where multi-aged and mixed species forests in which late successional species would naturally occur. The revisions are expected to take approximately 12 months to complete and will involve external expert advisors and input from stakeholders.”

So, it has been a year. And again the people are still waiting. I am not sure what definition for “immediate” the Department of Lands and Forestry is using these days, but it seems it falls well outside of the scope of the meaning of the word used for centuries. Now we are waiting with greater anticipation due to several developments and some really concerning forestry activities in various parts of the province. Who knows… maybe the Department of Lands and Forestry was waiting for a decision on the Northern Pulp Mill. CBC - clearcutsMembers of multiple communities impacted by clear cuts, and the groups fighting for the improved standards in forestry, have been speaking out about the continued large clear cuts and have voiced their observations that it seems as though there is an effort in play to get as much timber and pulp wood as possible before the changes are implemented. So too are the rumblings that the government is purposely holding off on making the changes until it suits the mills and their contractors. Municipal leaders are even beginning to speak out along South-Western Nova Scotia. And the Minister has responded that they would not cancel planned cuts.

In March 2019, The NS Liberal Government introduced Bill 116, Biodiversity Act. The legislation pertained to the promotion of conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. It would seem to fall into line with the recommendations of the Lahey Forestry Review. It went through first and second readings, law amendments, was presented to the house again by the Minister of Justice, recommended for a final vote, but never proceeded. Why? Through two house sittings, a majority government introduces legislation, that did seem to look toward the future of our natural world, and its importance in our health and well-being, as well as the need for responsible long term consideration in planning, it was set to be passed by a still majority government, and it just fizzled out of the picture. without explanation.

Two major pieces of policy and regulatory work have been created, accepted and do agree primarily with the public’s wish to see changes in the care for our environment, specifically the forests and all that live there and rely on the forests. Both of these documents provided hope for the future of our forests, conservation, sustainability, biodiversity. Both have gone missing in the dark corners of the NS Liberal “Almost got there” File. It’s like a teaser, meant to trick the public into being quiet for a little while, so that the forestry industry can make their last stripes through our crown lands before they are forced to reform or refit their methods.

1234289_1418978584983769_1634720554_nAs trees continue to fall, and trucks roll up and down the highways of Nova Scotia, loaded with every type and age of tree, heading toward the mills and the Digby Ferry, groups are calling on Minister Rankin to come forward with his plan. And while the mills are obviously getting the most out of the cuts, there are other concerns at play. The sale of crown lands, important crown lands to wealthy developers for golf courses, cuts planned during nesting seasons, old forests being cut because the Department of Lands and Forestry says they’re not old forests. One in particular has really created a longer list of questions about the government’s sincerity about change, and it extends beyond the forestry issues we face.

The Bowater Lands near Tantallon have been a major concern for a number of years now, since they were purchased back from Bowater Abitibi on behalf of the people of Nova Scotia. The public have been fully engaged in the process, during the public consultations on the purchase and since in regard to any  proposed activities and uses of the lands, and the protection of old growth forests and wildlife in the area.

In 2016, without any public input or consultation, 24 hectares of forested Bowater lands and a 13 km right of way to the new (still in development at the time) Ingramport Interchange were granted to Scotian Materials for aggregate extraction in exchange for three parcels of land, two in this same area, and one in Goffs, next to Scotian Materials’ quarries. At that time, members of the public raised the alarm bells over the land swap, citing the secrecy and failure to publicize the swap until members of the public had already found out about it and called the government to task. There was also outcry over the special concession being given to one company, such as the right of way through the woods, across crown lands, for a quarry that was in the process of acquiring approvals for an asphalt plant. The nearby community did not want the impacts of these industrial activities, and the people were not sure these were suitable purposes for this land, especially with a wilderness area in the works. Why should we give up crown lands for this company anyway? It was essentially a leg up, an unfair advantage, provided to the company that enabled them to access their property, without having to pay for the connecting property, nor pay for land to build a road. Then Minister of Natural Resources, Lloyd Hines, said this was just a normal land exchange, and said that the public would have a voice on any future development.

The St. Margaret’s Bay Stewardship Association has been working and consulting with NS Lands and Forestry (formerly Natural Resources) for about 10 years, to develop a protected site, in this same area, the Ingram River Wilderness Area. They have been participating in meetings, studies, consultations, with the community, the current Minister of Lands and Forestry and his staff. Since 2015, the Stewardship and other groups and individuals have fought hard to protect the proposed area from various proposed cuts especially considering the old growth forest in the area. After the latest round of opposition to the proposed cuts, Minister of Lands and Forestry, Iain Rankin told the Stewardship there would be a hold on any further plans to cut in the area, until the decision was finalized on the Wilderness Area.

Nick 3

Pictures of site, before and after cut. Photo ~ Phlis McGregor

So the work continued. Forestry and ecological data and inventories were being gathered, and those engaged in the process felt they had the ear and the genuine interest of the Minister. But then this Fall, during a day of work on the biodiversity assessment for the wilderness area proposal, a devastating discovery set the public on the chase for more information and proper explanations. A clear cut was found, 70 metres wide and about 1.5 kms long, 26 acres, a future roadway including core drilling, that ran between two parts of and essentially shortened the 13 km right of way provided to Scotian Materials to their quarry in 2017, by 3 kms. An ecologist with the St. Margaret’s Bay Stewardship Association, who has training and experience in identifying old growth found the cut. It had occurred, according to satellite images, around April 2019. Through the proposed wilderness area. Through an old growth forest. The cut was done apparently by Westfor, the conglomerate of mills and forestry operators that have been clearcutting the crown lands all over South Western Nova Scotia for the past several years. Since this cut is not included in their harvest allotment, no stumpage fees were charged for the timber harvested from the site.

Phlis McGregor CBC - Ingram River

Members of St. Margaret’s Bay Stewardship Association inspect clear cut. Photo – Phlis McGregor

The Minister responded to questions, that this cut was for the Highway 103 twinning project. He stated that this type of development does not require an assessment as it is not harvesting. And anyone aware of the area and the history were befuddled by these kinds of statements. Minister Rankin went on later to claim that misinformation, lies, were being propagated regarding this site, that there was no old growth there and that he is very disappointed with these claims from various members of the public. He also asked the local Masthead News to cancel his subscription after they published photos and a story about the cut and cited his failure to uphold his promise to the Stewardship. A Minister is cancelling his subscription to a local paper because he doesn’t appreciate being called out for this cut, in a site currently being proposed for protection?

Members of various groups asked again. And stated the obvious. This cut was not next to Hwy 103. The Minister responded again that the cut is for a road that goes to the Dexter Quarry being used in the 103 Twinning Project. Trouble with that statement? There is no Dexter Quarry; only a Scotian Materials quarry. So then the Minister stated a lease Dexter Quarry. Sorry, but this is still not a believable response.

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Photo ~ People for Ecological Forestry in Southwest Nova Scotia

The cut is about 1.3 kms back in the woods, nowhere near the 103. The necessary cuts along the 103 had been completed long before the road building began last year. What in heaven’s name was the Minister talking about? Then too is the assertion this was not a harvest. It is a clear cut, no matter what its final purpose. A similar waiver of obligation had been given to Scotian Materials in their Goffs location, when they had cleared and destroyed forests and specifically wetlands, which is not permitted without NS Environment’s permit. In that case, the Minister of Environment claimed the cut was harvesting and not under their regulations, but the Minister of DNR stated it was not harvesting, as it was for a development. So NS Environment never enforced their regulations because they felt another department was responsible, but the other department rejected the claim, and yet NS Environment still failed to act. Scotian Materials certainly has it good in this province.

These statements by the Minister, the “Honourable” Minister, are really quite troubling. Those who are very familiar with the area, the history, the ins and outs and who’s who of this situation felt this was incredible misleading, and meant for the rest of the public, like those who do not live in the area, who are not able to connect the dots and others who would think the locals are making a big deal out of nothing.

The road building contract for the Hwy 103 twinning is tendered and awarded in pieces. Dexter Construction and Alva Construction appear to be the only two companies who received contracts for this project. Neither have engaged in using the “road” (aka clear cut) through the woods to Scotian Material’s quarry. The quarry itself has seen no activity in several years, specifically none since the highway twinning began.

Anyone who also knows about Scotian (Northern) and Dexter will have a hard time believing for even a millisecond that Dexter might be leasing a quarry from Scotian Materials. The two companies have been in a long lived pissing match, over Dexter intruding on Northern Construction’s (Scotian’s parent company) territory in New Brunswick. Dexter had scooped up some large road building contracts in NB, and so Northern began buying and leasing land in Nova Scotia and entering into negotiations with the province and municipalities around NS to open multiple quarries and build asphalt and concrete plants. Whenever Scotian Materials wishes to deflect attention, they have been known to point the finger at Dexter over the years. They have even gone so far as to accuse members of community groups of being paid by Dexter to fight their proposals. It feels like this is one of those finger pointing examples. One has to wonder, with all these recent findings, along with the continued concessions given to Scotian Materials, is there a plan to award Northern Construction with a part of the twinning project, like say the paving, even though it has not been tendered. We will have to watch and see. And we will be watching.

On social media, the Minister also stated that it is custom for NS Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal to build a road through the woods to private quarries for twinning projects. What? Really? TIR builds roads for road building companies to their private quarries, so that they can build roads? What kind of bafflegab is that? So the question was asked, where exactly is this Dexter quarry? What property is it on? He did not respond. Then he was asked, where are there other roads built by NS Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal  to other quarries and who were they built for? He has not responded. In 2017, TIR indicated they would not be awarding road contracts to any bid that did not have established approved quarries for aggregate. Industrial Approvals for quarries in Nova Scotia include their access roads. So then how does that jibe with the claim from Min. Rankin, that TIR is building access roads to privately owned quarries.

So in reaction to the Minister’s statements, the conversations and sharing of knowledge among the many alarmed by this development helped bring to the surface a troubling trend in this province. The optics of cronyism. What the Minister forgot, was that the various groups are all aware of each other, communicate with each other, share the weight of their work with each other, and aid in the battles each are fighting. There are networks of groups tied to each other by common interest and cooperative efforts. So when questions started being asked, they led to sharing of history and that has led to more questions.

It has long been known that the Minister of Lands and Forestry has a personal relationship with the President of Scotian Materials. Members of the Stop the Fall River Quarry Group, fighting Scotian’s quarry proposal in Goffs knew they were good friends confirmed by the local MLA, as well as the Rankin’s father, former HRM Regional Councillor Reg Rankin. It was Councillor Rankin who seconded the motion to proceed in the process of Zoning Amendments that would permit Scotian’s asphalt plant at this location.  Robert MacPherson was President of Armco prior to becoming President of Scotian Materials, and Iain Rankin was employed by MacPherson at Armco for a number of months prior to running for politics. Prior to Rankin being made a Cabinet Minister, he was lobbying the NS Liberal caucus on behalf of Scotian Materials, looking for support for their quarry proposals. When Scotian Materials was seeking an approval in Goffs, and Rankin was Minister of Environment, he supposedly recused himself from all dealings with that company in the department. It was reported in the media that he denied being friends with MacPherson, but rather was a former work colleague, but most who spoke up at the time, stated they knew the two were friends, but never knew they worked together.

Of course, there is a lot of information here, that many, if not most Nova Scotians would never know, nor relate to. They are not familiar with the site, nor aware of the distance from highway to clear cut, or the absence of any quarry other that that which belongs to Rankin’s old friend. The lack of accuracy or honesty or clarity or transparency or whatever we end up calling it, is directed to the unknowing and far off public. It is tactical and is meant to diminish the voices of those speaking up. It happens over and over again. Over the past few years, there have been far too many examples of the government misrepresenting the facts, even a little bit, to undermine the local knowledge being shared by the those impacted by or concerned about their actions, especially when it comes to the environment. And I might add, the current Minister of Nova Scotia Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal…. Lloyd Hines, has had nothing to say about this or any other road to a quarry his department is apparently building for private road building companies.

Nick 2Members of the public are growing weary of the various whoppers and really inaccurate claims made by the Lands and Forestry Department, the bending of the rules mentality in “this situation” or “that case”. Constant debates about why the rules don’t apply ‘this time’. They are tired of the continued massive clear cuts around the province. They are tired of having to fight the Department’s claims with boots on the ground first hand evidence. They are tired of important forests and ecologically sensitive places being sacrificed for wood chips and pulp. And the Department continues to disregard the public ire. Clear cuts even got a new name, so that the department didn’t have to list them as clear cuts on the harvest map any more. No one paying close attention really believes anything they say any more. And the Minister does not act on the public outcry, rather he accepts, repeats and defends his department’s statements. Is the Minister only repeating misleading information given to him or is he making these claims up himself? Is he helping a long time friend and former colleague out? Are we going to continue seeing conflicting translations of the regulations by pinning unsavoury forestry operations on other department’s approvals? Is this one company getting the preferential treatment, all the signs seem to point to? Did we, the taxpayers, actually build a road for this or any other company to access their private operations? Do those private profiteers’ perks actually overrule the public interest or is this going to be what many see as just another corrupted situation? Is the Minister okay with giving his word to local groups, that clear cutting will stop, and then propping up this obvious failure of that pledge?

So, with all of this, the questions are many and continue to go unanswered, just like the Department of Lands and Forestry action on the Lahey Report recommendations. And as yet another year goes by, more and more crown lands, and important places are being impacted by the continued delays in acting on change.

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