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Ontario’s Forest Sector Strategy finalized

Industry cheers, while critics warn of unsustainable practices

Temagami old growth pine forest © Noah Cole

When Ontario’s Forest Sector Strategy was still in draft form, Julee Boan, boreal program manager at Ontario Nature, in a phone interview with sister publication, EcoLog News, said it read like a good piece of public relations. There was plenty about the importance of increasing the forest harvest without compromising forest sustainability, but not much about how to go about it.

What concerned Boan most was the interplay between the draft strategy and a slew of other proposals dealing with endangered species, environmental assessments, forest audits and forestry practices.

The draft strategy attracted 483 direct comments on the Environmental Registry of Ontario, 47% against the proposal, 30% supportive, and 23% neutral, according to the government. Another 32,000 comments came in through a letter-writing campaign against the proposal.

Despite this, the final, approved strategy [https://files.ontario.ca/mnrf-fid-forest-sector-strategy-en-2020-08-20.pdf], released August 20, 2020, hardly departs from the draft.

“The final document is glossier. It looks prettier. But the thrust is the same: doubling logging, removing environmental safeguards, presuming everything is hunky-dory, everything is sustainable, and [with] not a lot of evidence,” says Anna Baggio, director of conservation planning at Wildlands League, in a phone interview with EHScompliance.ca newsletter.

Gord Miller, chair of Earthroots and the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario from 2000 to 2015, doesn’t believe the strategy will do much to increase Ontario’s wood harvest.

The problem Ontario faces is on the demand side of the equation. The newsprint and fine paper markets that have been fed by Ontario pulp mills have all shrunk. Canadian suppliers of dimensional softwood are now facing stiff competition from new species being grown in the United States and elsewhere, species that can grow to a marketable diameter in 25 years, compared to the 90 or so years that native Canadian species require.

At the same time, the Ontario government has gone ahead with other troubling reforms — exempting forestry from environmental assessment and, for another year, the Endangered Species Act, 2007. It has also decreased the frequency of independent forest audits and made changes to Forest Manuals that may lead to less public involvement in forest management planning.

The strategy identifies four “pillars of action” — promoting stewardship and sustainability; putting more wood to work; improving Ontario’s cost competitiveness; fostering innovation, markets and talent — each with a series of bullet points beneath.

“There are some good points there,” says Miller in a phone interview with EHScompliance.ca newsletter, “but to sell this as a great strategy to solve all the problems just seems somewhat lacking.”

The strategy calls for establishing and strengthening partnerships with Indigenous communities, investing in advanced remote sensing technologies, encouraging the use of underutilized species and log qualities, developing new innovative products, and increasing the use of wood in Ontario’s building and bridge infrastructure.

These are laudable objectives, says Miller. Environmental groups have been calling for them for years.

Others, though, are puzzling. For instance, the Ontario government will enhance recognition of its sustainable forest management. It cites Ontario’s “It Takes a Forest” public awareness campaign as an example. However, the Ontario government has also exempted forest operations from environmental assessment and weakened species protection.

“How can they be enhancing recognition of their sustainable forest management?” Miller asks. “They’re undercutting it.”

Miller runs through several other bullet points in the strategy:

 Respond to a changing climate: “Well, they’re not responding to climate change,” he says. In fact, Earthroots sued the province in February 2020 in part for its refusal to consider the carbon impact of the proposed Temagami Forest
Management Plan.
 Remove barriers to accessing wood: “We’re not aware of any,” Miller quips. “They seem to get their way every time they want a new road in.”
 Increase forest growth: “We don’t know how they’re going to do that,” he says, “because climate change is working in the opposite direction.”
 Reduce the regulatory burden: “We’re scratching our heads at that one,” says Miller, laughing. “They’ve reduced the regulatory burden so much there are hardly any regulations at all.”

A strategy that is predicated on winning favour from the environmentally-conscious consumer will not work if it promotes practices that are damaging to the environment, Baggio argues. “They have a disconnect in their own strategy,” she says.

Natural resource ministries often play two roles, regulator and promoter, and reconciling those two roles can be difficult. Baggio says Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry has made a choice. “They’ve given up entirely as far as I can see on the regulating side.”

The Ontario forest industry — which has lobbied hard for this new strategy and the slew of regulatory changes that have come along with it, and has lustily applauded the changes — has complained that it harvests only a fraction of the forest available for harvest. According to the strategy, since 2000, the volume of timber harvested has fallen by more than 40%, real employment income in the
forest sector has fallen by $1.9 billion, and more than 35,000 jobs have been lost.

“It’s all about money and the economy, and it doesn’t recognize that this Crown forest is a public resource,” Miller counters. “[The forest] belongs to the people of Ontario. It has to be managed sustainably, and it’s not just an economic engine to make certain private sector companies wealthy, and it’s not just a job-creation facility.”

And it may not be as healthy and as well managed as the Ontario government and the forest industry proclaim.

“You can’t just presume your industry is sustainable. You have to back it up with data and evidence,” says Baggio. The strategy doesn’t do that, and Baggio suggests that it can’t because of the poor state of the province’s forest resources inventory.

Wildlands League has done its own research [https://wildlandsleague.org/news/loggingscars/] that shows widespread deforestation from logging roads and landings, even long after clearcut areas have been replanted. This compounds an already serious problem, she

“If you don’t know that you’re losing all this timber, you’re over-allocating the forest going forward. You’re presuming there’s more than there is,” says Baggio.

“There’s no way that you can claim that what is happening there is sustainable,” said Jennifer Skene, a lawyer with Natural Resources Defense Council’s Canada Project, in a July 2020 phone interview with sister publication, EcoLog News.

“The Ontario government has made it clear where its interest lies, and that is not with the public and that is not with the health of the forest for future generations,” said Skene.

The Ontario government says otherwise. It says the province’s sustainable forest policy framework is globally recognized. Ontario’s forests are diverse and resilient, and the wood harvested from them is sustainably sourced and renewable. That must continue if the province’s forest industry is to remain strong and vibrant, and this strategy will ensure that it does.

And despite declines in newspaper circulation and the advent of the paperless office, the Ontario government says markets are growing. It cites a 2018 study [https://www.un.org/esa/forests/wpcontent/uploads/2018/04/UNFF13_BkgdStudy_ForestsSCP.pdf] from the United Nations Forum on Forests. That study finds strong global growth potential for products derived from pulp and solid wood products.

The Ontario government says it will form a Forest Sector Strategy Advisory Committee to support the development and implementation of the strategy. The committee will advise on the implementation of the strategy, develop key performance indicators to measure progress and report annually.

by Mark Sabourin