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Ontario needs to get its act together for the forest industry

Ontario's forest industry is predicting dire consequences--including
the possible removal of millions of hectares of commercial forestlands--from poor implementation of the province's Endangered Species Act.

By Tony Kryzanowski

The Ontario government is now considering how its new Endangered Species Act can be implemented so that the province's forest industry doesn't become an endangered species as a consequence.

The province's Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) says the government has made a commitment to prepare habitat regulations for ten priority species at risk--including woodland caribou--by June 2009.

The Ontario Endangered Species Act was passed in May 2007, with the expectation that it would be implemented in June 2008. Ontario's forest industry essentially said "hold on a minute," and it was granted a one-year exemption as the government worked out the details of how the Act and a proposed permitting system will be applied. This is particularly important since the industry is already regulated by the Crown Forest Sustainability Act.

What's clear based on comments provided to Logging & Sawmilling Journal (LSJ) from the Ministry is that there will be no forest industry exemption from the Endangered Species Act, there will be a permitting system that is yet to be determined, and that it will not be business as usual for Ontario's forest industry.

When asked by LSJ how a proposed permitting system will be implemented, MNR spokesman Barry Radford responded, "We have had meetings with the forestry sector to talk about ways to meet challenges facing the industry. The discussions will continue."

When asked what the industry will be expected to do to comply with the Act and when it is expected to begin, Radford said, "We continue to have discussions with our partners in the forest sector to address implementation concerns and to work out the best way to ensure that forest companies can meet the conditions of the Act in the most efficient way possible."

Industry, especially those with forest operations in woodland caribou habitat, should expect more strictly controlled logging activity and elimination of some prime caribou habitat from commercial logging, according to MNR. However, even MNR admits that setting hard and fast rules as it pertains to protecting the province's estimated 5,000 woodland caribou is difficult.

"Protection of some species can be achieved through seasonal restrictions on timing of forestry operations, or through establishing buffer zones in certain areas," Radford said. "However, habitat protection is difficult to define for caribou, as they require large boreal landscapes for their survival which periodically undergo natural disturbance cycles."

The industry has responded with anger and a feeling of betrayal after it was included as subject to the new regulations governing the protection of 184 identified species at risk.

"Our position is that we do currently provide for the protection of the habitat of the species at risk," says Scott Jackson, manager of forest policy for the Ontario Forest Industries Association (OFIA). "We have been required by law to do so since the mid-1990s, under the Crown Forest Sustainability Act. We never, ever, expected to be exempt from our responsibilities to protect species at risk."

The forest industry's activities have, in fact, assisted in the recovery of some species at risk in Ontario, such as the bald eagle, red shouldered hawk, and southern flying squirrel.

The OFIA represents 24 member companies, who conduct more than half of forest harvesting operations on Crown land in the province. Members range from fifth generation, family-owned operations to Canadian divisions of multinational corporations.

It appears that some militant environmental groups seem intent on making the province's endangered woodland caribou the Ontario equivalent of the spotted owl of the American Pacific Northwest, which was used by the environmental movement to attack and curtail logging in that region.

According to the Ontario Forestry Coalition, an organization consisting of several forest industry stakeholders, the Dalton McGuinty government's own advisors concluded that a permitting system as proposed under the Act would not work, but the government caved in at the last minute to the environmental lobby to score political points.

Dan Dedo, manager of Canadian Woodlands for Grant Forest Products, was on the technical team working directly with the government to draft the legislation. A Coalition press release says that he was told directly by the government that environmental special interest groups would refuse to accept the necessary long term-regulation and, as such, the government would be abandoning its own advisors' recommendations to accommodate the environmental campaigners and include a permitting system.

The press release states, "The position of environmentalists in Ontario is frighteningly similar to campaigns run in the U.S. Northwest in the 1990s, where similar permit-like systems have been used to all but wipe out forestry in the U.S. state of Oregon and parts of Washington State and California."

Protecting the environment for woodland caribou alone has the potential to remove between six and eight million hectares of the province's commercial forest from production, or roughly 20 per cent. What is causing the forest industry great concern is that the woodland caribou is only one species on the species-at-risk list. Since September 30, 2004, 16 species have been added to the species-at-risk list as threatened or endangered or have had their status elevated to a greater risk level. All 16 of these species are located in Southern Ontario, and Scott Jackson notes that not one of these species is at risk due to forest management.

The industry has provided further input to MNR regarding the potential consequences of implementing a poorly conceived permitting system as part of compliance with the Endangered Species Act. In reality, the consequences of the campaign in the American Northwest went a lot further than taking seven million acres of land from the timber harvest. The decision to stop logging in specific areas to protect spotted owl habitat in fact created an extreme fire risk, resulting in massive forest fires. Realizing the folly of their actions, Washington, Oregon and California are now conducting major forest thinning operations to protect forests to reduce the fire hazard.

OFIA's Scott Jackson says the ecological consequences of adopting the same approach as was used in the American Northwest is just one on a long list of concerns that the industry has put before the government, as MNR drafts policy for implementing the new Act.

Jackson points out that the industry is not requesting special treatment. What it wants to avoid is duplication. What the industry wants to hear from the government is what legislation will take precedence in future forest management decisions, the Crown Forest Sustainability Act or the Endangered Species Act.

"Unfortunately, the Endangered Species Act is written in such a way that a permitting process will ensure forestry fails to meet requirements," says Jackson. "And even with government approval of a permit, there will be frivolous legal challenges that will halt the harvest of wood, close factories and send more jobs out of the province."

This does not exactly create an environment for attracting further investment in Ontario's forest industry.

"Our sector has been preparing itself to turn the corner and take advantage of expanding opportunities and new green opportunities, including in the building sector, and in the utilization of wood as a bio-fibre as Ontario moves toward a bio-economy," says Jackson. "If this Endangered Species Act legislation isn't implemented properly, it could severely frustrate those efforts."

The Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities and the Ontario Region of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada are also up in arms about the potential consequences of a poor implementation process.

"The last thing forestry workers need right now is government enacting duplicate legislation and adding to job security uncertainty in an industry still in crisis," says Kim Ginter, administrative vice-president for the union. "And here we are having to explain to the McGuinty government that it is about to potentially eliminate thousands more jobs."

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April 2009

Spotlight

Ontario's forest industry is predicting dire consequences--including the possibale removal of millions of hectares of commercial forestlands--from poor implementation of the province's Endangered Species Act.

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