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New Brunswick forestry plan promises jobs, but environmental concerns persist

FREDERICTON - New Brunswick's forestry plan is intended to rejuvenate the province's forestry sector, an industry clobbered by mill closures and job losses.

But the strategy has set off criticism from conservationists who say it disregards the environment and threatens to decimate Crown forests.

The 10-year plan, a pillar of the Progressive Conservative government's platform, gives forestry companies access to 3.9 million cubic metres of softwood on Crown land — a hike of 20 per cent.

"We are going to see a lot more clear-cutting, a much larger clear cut, a lot more land converted to plantations instead of being allowed to naturally regenerate, a lot more herbicide spraying and the loss of local populations of wildlife," said David Coon, leader of the province's Green party.

Coon's opposition has been echoed by academics and environmentalists since the plan was unveiled with much fanfare in March.

But the government says the critics are ignoring the crisis facing the forestry industry, which in the last decade has seen nearly 40 mills shut down and 6,000 jobs evaporate. That in a province that relies on forestry more than any other province, based on GDP.

Natural Resources Minister Paul Robichaud puts it bluntly.

"Anyone who doesn't see that we have an emergency situation in the forestry industry doesn't live in this province," Robichaud said.

The plan, which has earned the support of Unifor, has triggered an infusion of money from the private sector.

Robichaud said he expects it will generate more than 1,200 construction jobs and another 500 positions in the forestry industry as mills throughout the province make improvements to take on the increased supply of wood.

J.D. Irving, the largest forestry company in the province, has announced more than $513 million in projects to upgrade its facilities that are expected to create 1,200 jobs during construction and 326 permanent jobs.

Jason Limongelli, director of woodlands operations for the company, said the extra wood from Crown land provides the stability to allow the company to make the investments. He said the company will also be buying nine per cent more wood from private woodlots this year than it did last year.

He said clear-cutting worries are overblown.

"We're not in business to run ourself out of business," he said. "Inherently we are interested in a growing and sustainable supply."

Blake Brunsdon, the chief forester at the company, said it has staff such as a naturalist and wildlife biologist whose job it is to ensure they are not harming the environment.

"These are full-time folks who go to work everyday to make sure that we're being responsible with respect to things like aquatic habitat, the fisheries, the wildlife and ensuring we're not putting any species at risk with our operation," he said.

The province has signed a 25-year contract with J.D. Irving that gives the company access to more than half of the Crown land softwood available. The deal will be reviewed by the government every five years and Irving must make promised investments in its mills while following sustainable forestry practices.

Robichaud said the contract can be revoked if all the provisions are not being followed.

The Opposition Liberals say they can't endorse the forestry plan because the scientific data on which it was based hasn't been released.

Liberal member Donald Arseneault, a former natural resources minister, said the government was irresponsible to hike the amount of wood that can be harvested before determining exactly where it is going to come from.

"The government's only objective was to give as much wood as we can to the industry, not knowing if it was sustainable or not," he said.

"They're not thinking of everything else that's going on on our Crown lands."

Debbie Norton, president of the New Brunswick Salmon Council, said she is concerned buffer zones near watercourses could be reduced and affect salmon stocks.

"Removing shade near rivers and streams will increase the temperature of the water and kill the salmon who require cold water," she said.

Norton said the government did not seek her group's input and is not providing the answers she is looking for.

"We have letters into the government asking for explanations and basically the response we get back is nothing," she said.

Ken Hardie, general manager of the New Brunswick Federation of Woodlot Owners, said his group, which represents private woodlot owners, wasn't consulted either.

Robichaud dismisses such concerns, saying his department has been gathering input from the industry and public over the last few years, citing specific efforts such as a forestry summit and the appointment of Crown land and private land task forces.

"If that is in fact true, we didn't know we were consulting on this strategy," Hardie said.

The forestry sector contributes $1.45 billion a year to New Brunswick's economy and employs nearly 22,000 people.

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