Tom Miller: Waiting for the Super Cycle

What's going on?

As a Nova Scotia woodlot owner and operator for the last 38 years, I've seen a lot of ups and downs in the Forest Industry. Right now, the day to day outlook is pretty bleak with the next 3-4 years supposedly forecast to show some improvement. I know how the years seem to fly by, but when you're hanging on desperately, as the few forestry contractors left are, the good times seem awfully far off. It's been tough.

So, how to be positive through all this difficulty? Well, that's tough too. Way back in 2007 the NS government started a policy review around the future of our natural resources. Many meetings were held around the province for public input, a couple of reports summarized the results and plotted a way forward and a new strategy was finally announced. The message from the public was clear - the status quo was no longer an option. Nova Scotians sent a strong message to government - that our current forestry model was economically, ecologically and socially unsustainable, and a new path forward was needed. The government response was weak, ambiguous and late, and today it isn't clear which direction this policy is going.

On Friday March 30, I attended, with other woodlot owners, my second meeting with Peter Woodbridge, the Consultant hired by the Government to advise on the implementation of a new forest harvesting policy. He presented a rosier outlook for the industry in the above mentioned 3-4 years. It was he who recommended that the fate of the forest industry lies in getting access to the wood supply held by the province's 30,000 small woodlot owners who collectively own 50% of the province's woodland. The "disengaged" must become "engaged." This will be tough as well. This winter, prices paid for softwood logs to be chipped for pulpwood were the same as 1995. And further reductions when roads open in May are expected. A major incentive to cut wood is missing - the ability to make a profit doing it!

What's going on anyway? The people of this province, when asked, said overwhelmingly "the status quo is no longer acceptable". And yet , our government , instead of coming up with a new strategy for the next 10 years, is working tirelessly to maintain the status quo. The mills, however, were dead set against any change and it looks like they got their way, as they usually have over the last 50 years. That's not going to be good for the forest of Nova Scotia. Look at the many trailer loads of wood you see moving on our highways. You can't help but notice that many of the sticks are so small. That's because much of the forest that's getting cut now is too young. That's our children's wood. We don't have enough mature wood to maintain the status quo in our forest industry, so we're cutting wood meant for the future.

And what about that rosier picture in 3-4 years time? Hard to say - it mostly depends on the situation in China, and our province's ability to replace one formally dominant trade partner (the US) with another. Mr. Woodbridge forecast a lumber "super cycle", when prices for lumber and pulp are set to skyrocket. It's not here yet, though.

So to my fellow woodlot owners, I say, try and hang on to your softwood, if possible. There is more money available for silviculture now, so look to do some pre-commercial improvement work on your land. Cut some softwood if needed from thinning ,but restrict any major harvesting until the price spike. If our wood is the key to maintaining the status quo, we might as well make some money when we harvest it.

Tom Miller

Greenhill, NS

NS 2005 Woodlot Owner of the Year