February 18 2015
POMQUET — Rivers Bend Wood Products Inc. is shutting down because it can’t access enough local hardwood.
The Antigonish County hardwood flooring manufacturer will close its doors this week, laying off the 11 employees that remain from a workforce of 17.
“Am I angry?” company co-owner Paul van de Weil said Wednesday, repeating a question.
“No. But I’m disappointed and I’m worried about the future for hardwood in Nova Scotia. … There should be a future for it, but that’s not how we’re managing our industry.”
Rivers Bend is the latest, and potentially not the last, hardwood business in northern Nova Scotia to shut down because it can’t access the wood.
“We could end up shutting down soon ourselves,” said John Vautour, procurement manager for the Groupe Savoie hardwood mill in Westville.
“Some weeks we’re only sawing one day a week just to keep our guys topped up on pogey.”
Both Rivers Bend and Groupe Savoie claim they have markets that want to pay for their products.
They also state that there’s plenty of hardwood in the forests of northern Nova Scotia.
But fewer private woodlot owners are making their trees available for harvest, attributed by some to fewer Nova Scotians wielding chainsaws anymore and to environmental concerns of property owners.
Meanwhile, Crown land in northern Nova Scotia is largely managed by Port Hawkesbury Paper under a 2012 agreement between the province and the Point Tupper plant’s new operators.
Neither Finewood Flooring and Lumber Ltd. of Middle River — which closed last year, citing hardwood supply as one of the main reasons — Rivers Bend nor Groupe Savoie have been able to reach a deal with Port Hawkesbury Paper to access hardwood.
Port Hawkesbury Paper consumes about 600,000 tonnes of wood fibre annually. But its demand is almost entirely for softwood.
Nova Scotia Power’s biomass boiler, which opened last year, was sold to the forest industry as a market for low-value hardwood that accounts for about 85 per cent of hardwood stands. The argument was that it would result in more harvesting of hardwood.
And there is more; the plant consumes about 660,000 tonnes of wood fibre a year.
But somehow there aren’t more of the higher-value saw logs.
“You hear the people running the forwarders saying they’re being told not to pull the logs out, to just chip them all and send them to biomass because its simpler to chip them on site and truck them out,” said van de Weil.
For Rivers Bend co-owners Paul and his brother, John, this is a sad week.
Their father, Joe, started the flooring business with a sawmill in the family’s dairy barn in 1994. That first year, Joe and Paul made $60,000 in sales.
They grew the business until 2007, when a fire destroyed the plant they had built.
They rebuilt and continued growing to $2 million in sales. In 2011, they invested $1 million in Atlantic Canada’s first pre-finishing line, a 45-metre-long series of machines that sand, apply finish and dry hardwood.
“When we made that investment, supply was supposed to start increasing,” said Paul van de Weil.
But that didn’t happen.
In 2011, NewPage Port Hawkesbury went bankrupt at the same time the 50-year lease for Crown land signed by the plant’s former operator was about to expire. But the right to access Crown land wasn’t given to the high-value hardwood sawmills and processors of northern Nova Scotia.
Then management was given to the plant’s new operators in 2012.
Meanwhile, harvesting capacity in the province has declined significantly.
Allan Eddy, associate deputy minister for the Natural Resources Department, said that about half as much wood is being cut today as there was a decade ago.
“The challenge is that quality hardwood does not make up a large percentage of our Nova Scotia forests,” said Eddy.
“In general, companies like Rivers Bend depended on a vibrant forest industry with a high level of harvesting taking place, allowing that small percentage of standing forest that makes good saw logs to make it to them.”
And what’s next for the van de Weil brothers?
“John is also a teacher, so he can fall back on that,” said Paul.
“As for me, I just don’t know.”
Federation of Nova Scotia Woodland Owners
PO Box 358, Brookfield, Nova Scotia
Phone Toll Free 1-844-WOOD-LOT (1-844-966-3568)
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