A Department of Natural Resources report confirms that two stands of old growth forest were partially cut by Port Hawkesbury Paper.
As well, 11 hardwood stands the mill had planned to cut in the Loon Lake area near Guysborough qualified as old growth.
“This is a case where we failed,” said Departmentof Natural Resources minister Margaret Miller on Thursday. “Our processes failed. We take part of that responsibility as well as Port Hawkesbury Paper.”
The study of 12 areas that had already been harvested and 15 slated by the mill to be cut in the Loon Lake area was done after concerns were raised in the Guysborough Journal and The Chronicle Herald by harvester Danny George that old growth was being cut to feed Nova Scotia Power’s biomass boiler.
While two of the sites cut qualified as old growth, eight qualified as old forest. The difference is not age of the stand — both are composed of trees more than 122 years old — but that more than 50 per cent of the latter is not composed of long-lived climax species like yellow birch and sugar maple.
Miller said as the old forest would eventually reach the point of deserving the old growth designation, most of it would be protected as well.“We have decided to cancel all the harvests in the area (around Loon Lake) to make sure we won’t be cutting any more old growth,”
said Miller. “Once classified as old growth forest, they are protected and they won’t be cut.”
According to figures provided by Port Hawkesbury Paper, of the hardwood cut in the Loon Lake area (including stands that didn’t qualify as old growth), 73 per cent went for fuel wood (biomass), 11 per cent for firewood, eight per cent for hardwood pulp, six per cent for saw logs and a very small amount to make pallets.
Under the 2012 Forest Utilization and Licensing Agreement between the province and the mill, Port Hawkesbury Paper manages all the Crown land in the seven eastern counties. The deal guarantees the mill the right to cut 400,000 tonnes of softwood and 175,000 tonnes of hardwood on Crown land annually.
DNR works more as an auditor, only checking 10 per cent of sites before they are cut and 25 per cent afterwards.
The mill pays contractors trained and certified by DNR to do pretreatment assessments on stands before they are cut. Though all 27 sites had pretreatment assessments done, none was identified by the mill as old growth.
In a March interview, mill district superintendent Marven Hudson said identifying old growth wasn’t Port Hawkesbury Paper’s responsibility.
“We don’t identify the old growth, the province identifies old growth,” he told The Chronicle Herald. “We put our (pretreatment assessments) into that program, and it spits out what treatment we should do.”
According to a study led by forester Peter Bush, an old growth flag was only added to the pretreatment assessment process last June. The assessments done on the stands around Loon Lake were completed before addition of the old growth criteria.
In his study, Bush also found the old growth criteria included in the new pretreatment assessment system would only have identified five of the 13 stands he determined were old growth.
“The current (pretreatment assessment) trigger for tolerant hardwood old growth needs to be reviewed based on these study results, as well as other old forest scoring that has been completed by the department,” reads the report.
Miller said the mill would not be penalized for cutting old growth because blame for the error was shared by both the mill and her department.
For his part, Danny George thinks changing the definitions within pretreatment assessments won’t stop the same thing from happening again.
“If I had one wish, it would be that under no circumstances should Port Hawkesbury Paper be able to hire a contractor that does the pretreatment assessment,” said George. “It should either be DNR themselves, or someone who has no affiliation with industry whatsoever. Everybody knows how those big mills can squeeze the people who are dependent on them to give them what they want.”
Despite the ministerial mea culpa, George remains skeptical.
“What happens on paper and what happens in the woods are two different things,” he said.