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December 2003 January 2004


Cleaning up after Juan

Hurricane Juan cut a damaging path through Nova Scotia, and has left woodlot owners scrambling to clean up, salvage timber—and trying to plan for the future.

By Stephen Bornais

 Some areas of woodlands were virtually flattened by Hurricane Juan, which cut a swath from Halifax north to the Northumberland Strait. Photo Credit - NS Department of Natural Resources

Donald Parker’s sinking feeling has nothing to do with the swampy ground beneath his feet—it has everything to do with how he feels when he walks the 200-hectare woodlot he co-owns in Elderbank, about 40 kilometres from Halifax. Parker is a part of an unlucky group, the hundreds of Nova Scotia woodlot owners, both big and small, who saw decades of toil and hope destroyed in an instant by Hurricane Juan in late September. ”I saw a lot of trees that were down just in getting to my lot,” he said. “But when I saw my lot, it was disbelief. It was almost like a death in the family. I was in mourning.”

Juan slammed into Nova Scotia on Sept. 29. It cut a swath across the province from Halifax on the Atlantic Ocean north to the Northumberland Strait, a distance of 120 kilometres. Packing 170-kilometre per hour winds, Juan struck hard into the province’s central woodlands, snapping trees in two or ripping them out by the roots. The Forest Products Association of Nova Scotia found that forest damage was most extensive along the southern coastal region in a 30-kilometre wide band from Halifax to Musquodoboit Harbour and within a 40-kilometre radius of Truro. Most patches of downed trees were in the 10- to 50-hectare size range, the association says, with mature stands of spruce and balsam fir being the most heavily affected.

Photo: NS Department of Natural Resources

Hardwood stands, mostly used as firewood in Nova Scotia, were also damaged. Nancy McInnis Leek, the province’s director of forestry at the Department of Natural Resources, said Juan hit more like a series of small tornados than a hurricane, flattening some areas while virtually bypassing others completely. While the damage is widespread, McInnis Leek said on a provincial scale it is relatively minor. Still, she admits, Juan hit some owners particularly hard. “Damage is quite scattered, but if you happen to be the owner of one of these properties, it looks like you lost everything,” she said.

Parker estimates that he lost more than half of the trees on his lot. He is hoping to be able to sell most of the wood for manufacturing into lumber but that might be difficult given how many of the toppled trees were simply shattered by the wind. Tom Miller, president of the Nova Scotia Woodlot Owners and Operators Association, said many woodlot owners are only now coming to grips with what happened to their land. ”It’s like they’re in shock and it really hasn’t sunk in yet,” Miller said. ”Dreams and plans have been tossed upside and tossed out the window.” Salvage had begun in some areas, Miller said, with harvesters tackling the most accessible sites first.

The hardest hit sites and those far from existing logging roads, however, might have to wait, he added. “Guys are going for the easiest places to log,” he said. Finding someone to do the work has not yet become a problem, Miller said, with crews coming into central Nova Scotia from across Nova Scotia and neighbouring provinces. Major forest company J D Irving Ltd, for example, said it will soon have more than 35 pieces of heavy equipment and 90 employees on salvage operations. But woodlot owners have seen harvesting fees go up by as much as 30 per cent and stumpage fees go down, mainly due to an expected flood of downed wood reaching mills in the coming months.

 Woodlot owner Donald Parker (above) had trees that were ripped out by the roots. “When I saw my lot, it was disbelief,” he said. Photo Credit - Photo: Donald Parker

Costs are up, Miller said, because harvesters will have to go slow in the worst areas where trees lie in a twisted mess. “It’s going to be dangerous work in there. There is a lot of tension and pressure in the downed trees,” he said. Miller thinks the full extent of the Hurricane Juan damage will only be realized once the salvaged wood reaches the mills in force, sometime early in 2004. Thankfully, Miller said, lumber mills in the area are cranking up to handle the expected flood, at least giving woodlot owners and harvesters somewhere to take the wood. Not all the wood, however, will have somewhere to go.

Three years ago, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency imposed a 15-kilometre wide exclusion zone around Halifax in an effort to slow the spread of the brown spruce longhorn beetle. While the zone covers mostly urban areas, it also takes in thousands of hectares of woodlands. Wood, either as raw logs or lumber, can not be removed from the zone without permission from one of the agency’s inspectors to ensure it is beetle-free. Rod Kaiser, owner of K&M Lumber in nearby Minesville, said landowners just east of metro Halifax have been imploring him to salvage their Juan-damaged trees before they rot in the woods. “Ottawa is more concerned with getting rid of the bug and hasn’t really thought about the commercial value of the wood,” Kaiser said.

The problem has drawn in the politicians, including provincial NDP Natural Resources critic John MacDonell who called on the government to designate a processing mill to handle the quarantined wood and give hard-hit woodlot owners a tax break. He said many woodlot owners have seen the value of trees greatly reduced by the quarantine. And now Juan could reduce that to zero if they cannot process the cut wood anywhere. Several large sawmills in central Nova Scotia have applied to the agency to be allowed to cut the quarantined wood. That is welcome news, Kaiser said, except that it is scaring off smaller companies that had planned to use portable mills to process the wood inside the zone, while awaiting export permission from the agency.

As part of the effort to make the Juan clean-up both safe and profitable, the woodlot owners association sent out recommendations for anyone conducting a salvage operation. Miller said it is important that woodlot owners consider their long-term plans for their woodlots before starting salvage operations. “Actions taken now will affect Nova Scotia’s forests for many generations to come,” he said. The association’s first priority, Miller said, is safety, since working in the twisted mess found in most damaged woodlots can be extremely dangerous. Unless owners are experienced harvesters and have the proper equipment, the association said work should only be done using mechanical harvesting equipment with skilled operators.

Contractors are racing to salvage as much wood before the snow covers the downed trees and makes work even more difficult. The association is cautioning woodlot owners to avoid clear-cuts and to leave healthy standing trees. A clear-cut may give an instant economic boost—as much as $50,000 in Parker’s case—but it could be 50 years before the woodlot is ready to harvest again. The association is telling woodlot owners that for both economic and environmental reasons, this is probably not a good time to cut healthy standing trees, unless it’s necessary to accomplish long-term management goals.

It has also been suggested that it may not be economical to salvage every fallen tree or pocket of trees, especially if standing trees have to be cut to get at them. Even with the damage and the immediate need to salvage, the association pleaded with woodlot owners to think about the future and not abandon long-term plans. Owners are being advised to take some of the windfall cash and set it aside to pay for the development of a management plan and the restoration of a damaged area, ensuring owners have future revenue.

The provincial government has stepped in with financial aid for small commercial woodlots to remove damaged wood in order to prepare the site for natural regeneration or replanting, but will not provide compensation for all losses. But money will not make up for the sense of personal loss, Parker said. “The main intention of the wood lot was to be recreational, with some lumber production. Now we’re going to have a 200-hectare clear-cut.”

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