February 5, 2021
A lot has happened in the two and a half years since Blaine Higgs committed a Progressive Conservative government to overhauling New Brunswick’s flawed and outdated Crown Lands and Forests Act to make it more responsive to the realities of today.
If we don’t have a fair marketplace, we will fix it. — Premier Blaine Higgs, 2018
Premier Higgs has been elected twice, first to lead a minority PC government and then a majority, and there is the ongoing global pandemic with the massive changes it has wrought on people, societies and economies.
But what has not happened is any reform of the Crown Lands and Forests Act despite the premier’s encouraging promise during the 2018 election campaign. It prompted many of this province’s 42,000 private woodlot owners to think change was finally coming.
"It is time to modernize the Act to reflect today's realities and position us to protect our natural resources while we create jobs," Premier Higgs said in 2018. He also said he understood the fact that private woodlot owners “feel left out and marginalized” and pledged that "if we don't have a fair marketplace, we will fix it."
Well, we don’t have a fair marketplace, and it has not been fixed.
ERODE AND WITHER
Despite the current boom in wood sales, private woodlot owners are seeing the lowest prices in years for their products – even lower than neighbouring provinces like Nova Scotia. This speaks volumes about how unfair the system is in New Brunswick, and how urgently this government needs to act.
“Government after government has allowed forestry giants to bypass these safeguards of fair pricing entirely.
Even though the marketing board system is prescribed by provincial law to ensure fairness in a province with limited competition, government after government allowed it to erode and whither.
Worse, government after government has allowed forestry giants to bypass these safeguards of fair pricing entirely by negotiating directly with suppliers.
These direct contracts are a complete perversion of the marketing board system, chipping away at any notion of protection for woodlot owners in New Brunswick.
Woodlot owners are already suffering, with a decline in sales to mills of more than $400 million between 2004 and 2015, the most recent year for which figures are available.
In my view, this precipitous drop is driven largely by the government’s failure to address the issues facing woodlot owners in New Brunswick.
TALKING FAIRNESS FOR ALL NEW BRUNSWICKERS
Millions more have been lost for the people of New Brunswick in potential royalties from Crown land that have been foregone by governments in an effort to appease corporate interests.
We’re not just talking about fairness for woodlot owners but fairness for all taxpayers in New Brunswick. It is hard to believe that any Premier as careful with the provincial treasury as Blaine Higgs would allow this.
The original intent of the 40-year-old Crown Lands and Forests Act was to make sure the boards were used as the vehicle for a fair marketplace in the forestry sector.
The former Liberal government of Frank McKenna changed the Crown Lands and Forests Act in the early 1990s to eliminate the requirement for private woodlots to be the primary supplier to industry and opened the door to direct contracts between individual buyers and sellers, bypassing negotiated arrangements by the marketing boards.
COSTING US DEARLY TODAY
The decision to allow that system to be bypassed has led to the fundamentally unfair system that is costing us dearly today.
“It is hard to believe that any Premier as careful with the provincial treasury as Blaine Higgs would allow this.
It’s hard to believe that Premier Higgs and his fellow Conservative MLAs would want a return to the 1950s, when mill owners in New Brunswick held all the power – paying whatever they wanted, conducting business without any accountability or notion of fairness, and sidelining anyone they viewed as getting in their way.
But that’s where we are headed.
We have placed a lot of faith in the Premier’s promises. We have met many times with his natural resources minister, Mike Holland, and believe he too understands the need to restore fairness for woodlot owners.
Yet, we haven’t seen action. It’s good to have discussions – talking about an issue shows an understanding that there is an issue, taking action to fix the issue demonstrates a desire to actually do something about it.
Unfortunately, there has been very little action taken by any government going back 30 years.
This is a government that knows action – the Premier and his government have acted swiftly and decisively on matters involving the pandemic, and as a result New Brunswick is among the most enviable places to live right now.
RESTORE FAIRNESS FOR NEW BRUNSWICKERS
But the promise to modernize legislation and restore fairness for woodlot owners, there has been no action – or, frankly, any progress at all.
Minister Holland, for his part, seems resistant to making the legislation stronger.
That’s perplexing. Without the strength of law behind him, how will he wrest control from powerful corporations and restore fairness to ordinary New Brunswickers?
Thank you for listening,
Rick Doucett President, New Brunswick Federation of Woodlot Owners