03/17/2014 08:36 EDT | Updated 05/17/2014 05:59 EDT

Jim Irving defends New Brunswick forest practices, expanded cut

The head of J.D. Irving's forestry division says if anyone can produce "good science" that shows the company's forest practices are harmful to the environment, the company will change direction.

The  company has successfully lobbied New Brunswick government to increase the annual softwood allocation for Crown land. Last week, the provincial government announced a 21 per cent increase in the annual allowable cut of Crown softwood.

That change in policy has been greeted with shock and concern from some, who fear the impact increased cutting could have on the forest ecology and wildlife populations.

Speaking to Terry Seguin on CBC Fredericton's Information Morning on Monday, J.D. Irving co-chief executive Jim Irving defended the need for the policy change and his company's forest practices.

"It's unfortunate that some academics or environmentalists take a view that we shouldn't do this and we shouldn't do that," said Irving.

"If there's good science to the contrary to what we're doing, by gosh, let's stop," he said. "We'll stop right now and we back up. No problem.

"I tell you, we are not interested in anything that's irresponsible," said Irving. "Over the years, we've learned a great deal, we've had scientific people come to us, and they've pointed things out, and we've looked at things and we've studied them and we've said, 'You know what, that's a better way to do things.' And we've changed our practices.

"This is not about being hard and fast and not being open-minded to new ideas," he said. "But there has to be some logic and there has to be some science and we have to decide that … at the end of the day if we're going to spend all this money, then we better be competitive."

Irving said the long-term wood supply by government was necessary for the company to make capital investments in its mills in order to compete in the global market. Within 48 hours of the policy announcement on Wednesday, J.D. Irving Ltd., announced $513 million in capital investments in its mills, most of which will be pumped into Irving Pulp & Paper in Saint John.

One criticism of the new policy has been that it reduces the amount of Crown land that is off limits to industrial forest operations to 23 per cent, down from the previous level of 28 per cent. That off-limits area includes areas like watercourse buffer zones, deer wintering areas and protected natural areas.

Irving maintains the conservation forest is not being reduced by as much as it appears through those statistics.

Negative reaction 'unfortunate' says Irving

"The conservation forest today is still going to be over 30 per cent, because there is a large per cent of areas that are …still not being counted," said Irving. "They are inoperable areas, or they are unmapped streams, or they are steep slopes — all these types of things that are still not in the final calculation.

"We expect — and the DNR folks know this as well — that … over a third will still be available for all the biodiversity requirements."

Irving called the negative reaction to the new policy from those with environmental concerns "unfortunate."

"It's not fair to blame all academics or all these environmentalists, but there's a certain segment that appear to be, 'Let's lock things up, let's put it away. It's safer to do nothing than it is to move forward,'" Irving said.

"It's always frustrating when you are trying to move forward and compete in the global market, and you're trying to do it from New Brunswick, and you have a group of nay-sayers."

Irving said J.D. Irving has been operating a scientific research group for 15 years with six people holding doctorate degrees and a dozen graduate students hired annually for summer employment.

"They work on the ground. This is not theoretical," said Irving. "This is not sitting in the office staring at the computer. This is out in the forest, doing the work on the ground, collecting the data.

"Because we want to know. We're a New Brunswick company. This is home."

The company also employs about 150 forestry professionals, he said.

"These folks, a lot of them long-tenure people, wouldn't put that kind of effort and their professional reputation on the line if they thought we were up to anything that wasn't 100 per cent right," said Irving.

"They are professional in their business, and they have a lot of pride in it. They don't want to be associated with anything that wouldn't be right. I can tell you that from experience.

"There is no big conspiracy theory here that perhaps some people would like to advocate," said Irving. "They are working hard, and they are doing a darn good job.

"This is about the balance. This is about making sure that we do things right.  To think that we're going to say, sure, wreck the wildlife habitat or wreck the waters or anything else, that is just wrong," he said.

"And if you think that , or anybody who thinks that, doesn't know us or our company very well at all."