Regulator takes control of Sussex woodlot owners group

New Brunswick’s Forest Products Commission has taken temporary control of the Sussex-based SNB Forest Products Marketing Board in a move described by critics as showing “no respect” for woodlot owners.

The commission, the official regulator of the province’s seven woodlot owners marketing boards, now functions as SNB’s board of directors.

It will oversee staff who negotiate wood prices and manage the purchase and marketing of forest products sales for 8,000 private woodlot owners across a wide area of southern New Brunswick.

SNB chair Bill Richards likened the takeover to putting “the fox in charge of the chicken coop.”

SNB board chair Bill Richards says the takeover at SNB is like the ‘fox guarding the chicken-coop.’ (CBC)

The six-person commission is composed of representatives from the forestry industry, woodlot owners and government appointees.

“We’re nervous that the forest products commission much more represents industry than it does the marketing board, and here they are in control of the marketing board at this point,” said Richards.

For much of the last decade SNB has been locked in a battle with J.D. Irving Ltd., AV Group and a number of Irving contractors over efforts by forestry companies to bypass wood-price negotiators at the marketing board and buy logs directly from individual woodlot owners.

The matter ended up before the Forest Products Commission in August 2017, where Irving and others in the industry group argued the SNB overstepped its authority by mandating that sales from private woodlots must be negotiated through the marketing board.

In addition, Irving alleged the marketing board has a conflict of interest because it also operates a co-op of woodlot owners that competes with those members of the marketing board who have chosen to sell their wood to JDI.

In a December 2017 decision, the commission found largely in favour of the arguments raised by the Irving/AV lead group.

The decision was then upheld by New Brunswick’s Court of Appeal in a December 2018 decision. 

Moved too slowly for regulator

The formal takeover of SNB’s board of directors took place at the end of May after the commission concluded the woodlot group was not moving fast enough to separate its co-op and marketing board operations.

“This action has been very disruptive to the democratic system that marketing boards operate under and shows no respect for the woodlot owners that elected these people to represent them,” said Susannah Banks, executive director of the New Brunswick Federation of Woodlot Owners.

“We also have concerns about the overall structure of the commission and the high potential for conflict of interest among certain commission members.”

AV boss’s role questioned

Banks said a member of the commission, Michael O’Blenis, is also a senior manager at AV Group.

O’Blenis refused to talk to CBC News, referring questions to the Forest Products Commission.

The commission’s executive director, Tim Fox, said questions raised by CBC would be discussed for response at an Aug. 19 commission meeting.

“This is not exclusively a JDI issue,” said J.D. Irving spokesperson Mary Keith, referring questions to the Forest Products Commission and the Court of Appeal’s decision.