Jamie Wallace would ordinarily be spending the Christmas holiday season gearing up for a busy winter cutting wood.
Instead, the Coleman-based forestry harvester and owner of Jamie Wallace Forestry, says he will be spending the season "just tinkering", and wondering what the future holds for the Maritimes’ forest industry.
Wallace said he really didn’t expect last Friday’s decision by the Nova Scotia government to uphold the Boat Harbour Act, a decision that effectively forces the Northern Pulp plant in Pictou County to close next month.
“I didn’t think it was going to happen. They’d been talking about it, talking about it, but we thought it was a realistic request to have more time,” Wallace said.
The ripple effects from the decision were immediate. By that afternoon, Wallace learned prices for raw wood products had plunged. Wallace, who would normally have four or five people harvesting from woodlots during the winter months, shut down operations at suppertime that day.
“I’m sitting on it,” he said of wood he already has cut, “hoping to find a new home for it, seeing what’s going to happen after the holidays but, as of right now, it’s not looking good.”
When a buyer reported the new prices Friday afternoon, Wallace said, “It was such a significant drop that he said, ‘I know you’re not going to send me wood.’
“I said, ‘I can’t at that price.’”
District 25 MLA Robert Henderson, is critical of the P.E.I. government’s handling of the Northern Pulp file. He said, with Northern Pulp being a major player in Prince Edward Island’s forestry industry, the Island government should have prepared itself for the possibility that the government in Nova Scotia would not extend a deadline to allow Northern Pulp to continue operations beyond Jan. 31.
“I’m sick to my stomach over this. I’ve worked all my life, for this to be, pretty well, shut down in one afternoon.” - Jamie Wallace
Henderson, a former Minister of Fisheries, says he is not opposed to the Nova Scotia government’s decision; he’s disappointed in the P.E.I. government for not having a plan in place to address the impact it would have on the Island’s forestry sector.
“I think any prudent government should look at what those unintended consequences are and try to, at least, have a plan in place that, once an announcement came forward that wasn’t maybe what you had hoped - or was what you’d hoped - you’d better have some sort of a secondary plan,” Henderson said. “From my understanding, in talking to forestry businesses in my riding, nobody has ever called them; nobody has had any concern for them.”
Government, Henderson insisted, “should have a transition plan in place fairly quickly that maybe provides some help to maintain the employees.”
He suggested it could include a plan for cleaning up woodlots damaged by post-tropical storm Dorian.
“At least it keeps people working and, if you get a new plan in place after that, then you keep and retain the workforce.”
Government assistance for purchasing new equipment to allow operators to diversify, possibly into supplying a locally sourced biomass fuel would also help, he said.
In response to the criticism, a provincial government spokesperson noted P.E.I. premier Dennis King said last week that, in the coming days and weeks, the provincial government will be working with the forestry industry to identify opportunities and mitigate impact.
“We appreciate that this was a very difficult decision for the Nova Scotia government. Our government’s primary interest has always been the protection of the shared marine environment in the Northumberland Strait and we are satisfied that the potential threat to that ecosystem is being addressed,” King said.
Like Wallace, Kelly Wood, operator of Betts Sawmill in Glenwood, P.E.I., is following developments in the forestry sector closely.
Her mill had already ceased operations for the winter but it still has product to move, and she’s wondering what will happen to the wood chips it produces from material that cannot be milled into lumber.
For 15 years they had sold the material to Northern Pulp. Last year they found another market which she hopes will still want her woodchips when the mill starts up again in May.
“It’s going to affect a lot of people,” she said, acknowledging all mills that sold to Northern Pulp will be looking for new buyers.
Wallace said mills that have answered his calls since Friday have said the same thing: ‘We know why you’re calling.’
“Just get your name on a list, right? And hope.”
Wallace, who has been involved in the forestry business all of his adult life, started his own business in 2003.
“I’m sick to my stomach over this. I’ve worked all my life, for this to be, pretty well, shut down in one afternoon,” he said. “I bought a lot of equipment, started employing a lot of people. My son, he’s 16. He’s got a real interest in it, but it’s not looking too good right now.”
The impacts are far-reaching, Wallace said.
“I had lots of wood properties I was supposed to cut this winter that will not be cut at this point because I just cannot afford to pay the landowners anything.”