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Investment, innovation key to future of Nova Scotia’s forestry sector: mill exec

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Dozens of people from Nova Scotia’s forestry industry pressed their concerns Wednesday over the sector’s future to members of a government transition team tasked with providing assistance following the closure of the Northern Pulp mill.

Woodlot owners, sawmill operators, and industry contractors packed a hotel ballroom in Halifax during the industry’s annual general meeting for a chance to provide feedback to team chairwoman Kelliann Dean and to Julie Towers, deputy minister of the province’s Lands and Forestry Department.

Both sat quietly taking notes for nearly two hours as most of those who spoke voiced frustration over what they see as a lack of direction following the loss of one of the industry’s major players.

“We should talk about alternative markets but we don’t have anything tomorrow,” Matt Willett, of Wagner Forest Management, told the gathering.

“There’s no point in talking about the future and what innovations we can have if the sawmills in the forest industry collapse in the next six months. We need a solution to get there…. We need to transition to that.”

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Willett said the industry needs time and “the pressure taken off” in order to get to where it needs to be in advancing new ideas for the future.

READ MORE: N.S. seeks to reinvigorate the forestry sector by converting public buildings to wood heating

Robin Wilber, president of Elmsdale Lumber Company, questioned whether the province wants the mill to reopen at some point.

Wilber, who was removed from the transition team in early January for talking publicly about ways to keep Northern Pulp open, said many in the industry believe the province wants the mill gone for good.

That claim was backed by the majority in the room when Wilber asked for a show of hands on whether people agreed with him.

Jim Verboom of Nova Tree Company in Debert, N.S., said there’s an air of anger, fear and mistrust over the government’s decision to enforce a legislated deadline for the closure of Northern Pulp’s effluent treatment lagoons near the Pictou Landing First Nation.

The province rejected the company’s plan for a new treatment system that would see it pump treated effluent into the Northumberland Strait.

Northern Pulp has committed to continue with an environmental assessment process for a new treatment system ordered by the province, but the process could take up to two years to complete.

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“We have no idea which direction we are going,” Verboom said in an interview. “We’ve had no clear objectives set out in front of us.”

The transition team is advising the provincial government on how to spend a $50-million job transition fund announced on Dec. 20. On Wednesday, the province announced that after having already spent $13.5-million it would top the fund back up to $50-million.

READ MORE: Economic fallout of Northern Pulp closure will cut deep in Nova Scotia’s Pictou County

To date, $7 million has gone to more silviculture and road work on Crown and private lands, $5 million to provide a guarantee for the Forestry Contractor Financing program and $1.5 million to help workers from across the sector connect to customized programming in the skilled trades.

Earlier Wednesday, an executive with the province’s only surviving paper mill told the meeting that the province’s forest industry must look to investment and innovation in order to stabilize the sector.

Allan Eddy, manager of business development at Port Hawkesbury Paper LP, said his company is being driven by the low-carbon economy and constantly looking for ways to be more energy-efficient while developing new product lines in order to be competitive.

“You just can’t try to sell the same thing forever,” said Eddy. “If you are not constantly looking at your product base and seeing how you can upgrade it, you are eventually going to come to grief.”

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The Port Hawkesbury mill is taking in more wood chips from the province’s sawmills since Northern Pulp’s closure, but Eddy told reporters the company sees that as a short-term measure. He said his operation only uses about a third of the volume of wood used by the now-shuttered mill in Pictou County.

Northern Pulp took between 35 and 40 per cent of the pulpwood from the provincial market and more than 90 per cent of sawmill chips.

The mill closed last month and laid off just over 300 employees.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 12, 2020.