POLITICS

Panel says Nova Scotia should buy huge swath of privately owned woodland

12/07/2012 04:42 EST | Updated 02/06/2013 05:12 EST
LIVERPOOL, N.S. - The Nova Scotia government should buy a massive swath of forested land that once fed the now-defunct Bowater-Mersey paper mill near Liverpool, an expert panel says.

The panel, in a final report released Friday, said the 220,000 hectares owned by Montreal-based Resolute Forest Products should become part of a broader plan to revive the region's economy.

"It is clear that the overwhelming preference of the community is for the province to take ownership ... of the Bowater-Resolute lands, thereby supporting essential jobs that contribute to the economy," the report says.

"The community feels strongly that the assets should be converted to public assets with local control of a portion of the lands."

There was no price tag attached to the recommendation, but the cost would be steep. The woodland is considered one of the largest plots of privately held land in the province.

The province's NDP government is under pressure to acquire the land because there are concerns it could be purchased by foreign interests that would export the wood.

The report says local businesses and government representatives should develop a detailed business plan for the forest.

Premier Darrell Dexter, who was in Liverpool for the release of the report, immediately committed to fulfilling one of the other recommendations: hiring two project managers.

As for the potential sale of the land, Dexter said a tentative deal could be announced as early as next week.

"There are a number of pieces of assets ... and we have to deal with all of them," Dexter said.

"There's real potential for the mill site, you've got a great wharf down there ... and some of the best woodland anywhere in the world. We want this to be a complete disposition. We want an agreement, one that's going to work."

The Bowater mill closed in June throwing about 320 people out of work.

"The province stood by you in the early days of this crisis situation and will continue to stand beside you in the days ahead," Dexter said in a statement.

More than 300 people lost their jobs when Resolute closed the mill in June, saying the operation couldn't survive because paper prices had plunged and markets had dried up.

In December 2011, the province extended a $50-million lifeline to the mill, which included $23.75 million for about 10,000 hectares of land and a $25-million forgivable loan, though that wasn't spent.

The panel, appointed six months ago, was led by chairman Ron Smith, former chief financial officer with Aliant Telecom Inc.

The panel's report also recommends setting up a research site at the former Bowater property. The facility would look into manufacturing value-added wood products, such as biofuels and engineered wood products.

"Across all sectors, a focus should be placed on the growth and development of small to medium-sized local businesses, rather than on attracting big industry from outside," the report says.

The panel also suggested a closer look at a proposal to build an innovation centre that would offer computer training and business development services.

Other recommendations include improving distance learning, supporting local lending organizations, expanding agriculture and aquaculture production and sponsoring a business summit.

Nova Scotia's teetering forestry industry has seen two other mills close in just over a year.

The former NewPage Port Hawkesbury paper mill in Point Tupper, N.S., shut down in September 2011. But it resumed operations in October 2012 as Port Hawkesbury Paper — with roughly half the workers it once had — after the province announced a $124.5-million aid package.

Last month, the owners of the Minas Basin Pulp and Power Company mill announced it will shut down in mid-December, affecting 135 workers.

—By Michael MacDonald in Halifax

(The Canadian Press, CKBW)

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said most of a government loan for Bowater was not spent.