July August 2004
EAST COAST SAWMILLING
Under urban pressure
While the wood for the Barrett sawmill in Nova Scotia may be close to the mill, it is too close: the company’s land—and forests—have come under pressure from urban development, and, more recently, damage from Hurricane Juan.
By Stephen Bornais
David Barrett has a problem, but it’s a problem many other sawmill owners would love to share, at least in part. Barrett is watching logging contractor Vernard Lynch steadily work his way through a stand of mature spruce and hemlock, cutting sawlogs for the Barrett mill barely 10 minutes away. That proximity to a wood source is a rare thing in Nova Scotia, and most of the country, where mills find themselves forced to truck raw wood in from forests hundreds of kilometres away.
But Barrett’s problem with harvesting this particular woodlot is that he hadn’t planned on harvesting it for a long time. Barrett and his father before him personally tended this stand, using its towering hemlock and red spruce as a source for special wood orders, including 12 x 12 timbers up to 24 feet long, a rare thing in most Nova Scotia woodlands. “You could walk in, cut it down, load it on the truck and have a large custom piece for Nova Scotia within 24 hours,” says son Robin Barrett. However, Hurricane Juan changed Barrett’s plans and those of many other landowners in the province.
It is just the latest challenge put before Barrett, who along with brothers Keith and Hugh, own and operate the family business just outside Lower Sackville, a bedroom community of Halifax. Barrett says prior to the 1970s, the mill was the main business. But the family couldn’t escape the growing trend back then that saw homebuilders seeking one-stop shopping for their needs. “People just wanted to deal with one company. We had no choice but to get into building supplies,” he says. Barrett Lumber is a member of TIM-BR Mart, a co-op group of building supply companies that have gotten together to purchase building supplies at a competitive price. All the businesses that belong to the group are independently run. By 1980, the company branched out again, this time adding a value-added product in the form of engineered roof trusses. “I would say that we’re either the first or second-largest roof truss manufacturer in Nova Scotia right now. It’s a great value-added product, but it’s highly competitive,” Barrett says.
The Barrett mill draws timber from 3,200 hectares the company owns in the immediate area. That proximity has always helped the mill compete against larger operators. But that closeness came with a price last October when Hurricane Juan swept across central Nova Scotia, cutting a swath of destruction 120 kilometres long and 40 kilometres wide. The Barrett operation didn’t escape. “Most of what we lost in Juan was within one or two miles of the mill,” Barrett says. He says one reason why the company was hit so hard by Juan, is that much of its timber was ready to cut. “There is a time to harvest it and if you don’t harvest it, Mother Nature will, either by fire, bugs or, as in this case, by hurricane. As a result, mature timber was very susceptible in this hurricane.”
The blowdown is going to complicate future supply planning, Barrett says, because the company is now harvesting timber that it had counted on forback-up for the next ten to 20 years. Barrett had crews in the affected areas two days after the storm had blown through. Anything that was still standing was left, but it quickly became apparent that the storm damage was even worse than first feared. “We found that the root system was so badly damaged that within a month the stuff we left standing blew down too,” Barrett says. After an entire winter’s work, Barrett estimates about 25 per cent of the downed wood has been recovered. In late April, after the weight restrictions were lifted on Nova Scotia roads, he added a second shift.
Barrett says it is important—for the entire province—that the Juan damage is cleaned up as thoroughly as possible to ensure the fibre doesn’t provide a welcoming home to more insect pests. Otherwise the bugs are going to be in the equivalent of a nursery. “They’ll get going nicely this summer, and then the following year they’ll fly out to other areas,” he says. The younger Barrett says despite the efforts, he still expects a spike in the population of the local bark beetle sometime in 2005. “The downed trees can’t pitch them out. From there, they will go into the healthy stands and those trees won’t be able to handle the large populations infesting them,” he says. But rampaging hurricanes are not the only, or even the biggest, threat to the future of the Barrett operations. With a population of 350,000 people, Halifax has sprawled from its city core over the last 20 years, extending fingers of development into formerly rural areas. The pressure created by the city’s sprawl comes out in the oddest way.
Barrett owns a large woodlot to the west of his mill that is now bordered by a subdivision. The trees on the Barrett woodlot may never be harvested, however, since many of them are filled with nails. But they’re not from some eco-terrorist bent on halting logging. Instead, they’re from a far more benign, but equally destructive, source. They’re from neighbourhood kids building camps in the woodlot. “One fort gets built, then gets torn down. Another group of boys goes in and builds on top of that one,” Barrett says.
With continuing development pressures, some recently harvested woodlots have likely seen their last crop of trees, Barrett says. “The next thing that goes on that land will be houses,” he says. “We’re forced to do it, because of economics. We’re a rural industry in an urban environment.” As the city has grown, the Barrett lands have become more popular with urbanites seeking a little wilderness experience. But that popularity created major difficulties. The first problem to crop up was one that has bedeviled rural Nova Scotia for years: illegal dumping. “You finish making a nice road into the woods and the next day you go in and somebody has dumped some garbage or abandoned an old car,” Barrett says.
The situation was brought to a head, Barrett says, when local newspaperslisted the location of a sexual assault as having been on one of Barrett’s roads. “Well that made me angry, and I gated all my roads,” he says. Such a policy ran counter to the unstated rule of Nova Scotian landownership, which allows virtual open use to anyone who doesn’t abuse the privilege. So in 1978 Barrett developed a family forest stewardship agreement that would reward those who respected the land. He gives keys to those deemed worthy. More than 1,000 are now in circulation and the program has created a huge force of people protective of the land. To get the keys, recipients have to show that they care about more than just themselves. “My policy is that if you’re not responsible enough to give a donation to the community, you’re not responsible enough to use those lands,” he says.
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