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Woodlot owners lobby for federal supports

By: Jordan Ross

Posted: 03/11/2019 10:30 AM

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Andrew Fast stands amid trees he planted 30 years ago at Frosty Mountain Tree Farm, his woodlot south of Marchand.

JORDAN ROSS | THE CARILLON Enlarge Image

Andrew Fast stands amid trees he planted 30 years ago at Frosty Mountain Tree Farm, his woodlot south of Marchand.

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With federal and provincial elections on the horizon, an association representing 300 Manitoba woodlot owners is kindling support for a national tree-planting program that would see under-used private land harnessed to help curtail carbon emissions.

"With climate change being such a huge issue, and with the knowledge that planting trees is the best way to sequester carbon, we’re asking the federal government to support a national tree planting program…on marginal land that’s really not that suitable for agriculture," explained Bob Austman, a Beausejour-area resident and Manitoba board member of the Canadian Federation of Woodlot Owners (CFWO).

The program would be distinct from provincial efforts to reforest Crown land. Interested landowners would receive access to funding to offset the cost of preparing the land for white spruce seedlings, which Austman said thrive in a variety of soil conditions.

In return, landowners would set aside planted areas for the natural lifecycle of the trees, about 80 years.

"It’s a big commitment for landowners," Austman said, "but they’re very interested in stepping up and helping with the fight against climate change.

In Manitoba alone, 12,500 parcels of land would qualify, he estimated.

Andrew Fast, a past president of the Woodlot Association of Manitoba and owner of Frosty Mountain Tree Farm in the RM of La Broquerie, said he would’ve accessed a national program like the one Austman described, had it existed 30 years ago, when he planted 100,000 seedlings on a quarter-section of marginal cropland south of Marchand.

Fast plans to begin harvesting the mature trees, which now number 140,000, within the next five years.

The CFWO is also lobbying the Canada Revenue Agency to change the tax structure imposed on private woodlots.

Annual incomes in the industry are variable, and often weather dependent, Austman explained. If a windstorm fells a large amount of standing timber, a woodlot owner might see their income spike, pushing them into a higher tax bracket. But the following year could be quite lean.

To smooth out those income fluctuations, the association wants Ottawa to create a silviculture savings fund where a woodlot owner could deposit a portion of their harvest earnings, and only be taxed upon withdrawal, like an RSP.

"We’re not asking for tax relief. We’re just asking for the ability to carry that income forward so you’re not taxed all at once," Austman explained.

Over the past year, the association has sent letters and discussed its ideas with Manitoba MPs in Ottawa.

"We’re meeting a little bit of resistance, because the CRA is saying if they do that for us, they’ll have to do that for other groups," Austman said. "It’s been a little disappointing so far."

Board members also learned their tree-planting idea wouldn’t meet the criteria for Ottawa’s $2 billion Low Carbon Economy Fund.

Now, the association is championing its plan at the provincial level, by pointing out how silviculture dovetails with Manitoba’s Climate and Green Plan.

The document, created in 2017, notes woodlot management plans "that balance conservation and economic development" have a role to play in keeping Manitoba green, and suggests a stronger focus on carbon sequestration "on both private and Crown forested lands."

The non-profit Manitoba Forestry Association has backed the CFWO’s plan by submitting proposals for tree plantings on private land, Austman said.

But if a new federal program was created, the sale of Pineland Forest Nursery near Hadashville would complicate sourcing in Manitoba. Seedlings would need to be trucked in from Dryden or Thunder Bay, Ont.

"That’s going to mean much higher costs for seedlings," Austman said.

In the meantime, woodlot owners in the Southeast are benefitting from a consumer preference for the snap and crackle of woodstoves.

"There’s a growing demand for firewood. It seems that people are getting back into wood heat as a form of backup heat," Austman said.

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