May 15, 2006

PEI regulates ground hemlock industry to ensure sustainability

As of April 30, 2006, new regulations are in effect governing operations and setting standards for Prince Edward Island's ground hemlock industry. The new regulations require all those involved in the commercial harvest, purchase or export of ground hemlock, or Taxus canadensis, to be licensed and to complete courses on sustainable harvest practices. Only landowners who harvest ground hemlock on their own properties are exempt.

PEI Environment Minister Jamie Ballem said the new regulations are based on recommendations from the Public Forest Council as well as consultations with industry.

"The ground hemlock industry has acknowledged the need for industry standards , and indeed several companies indicated that their workers are already using similear measures," he said. "These regulations are intended to provide landowners with a measure of protection from theft and site damage and help harvesters and buyers to ensure the long-term sustainability of the resource-and thus their livelihood," Ballem added.

The regulations require commercial harvesters and buyers to meet a series of training and licensing standards. They must report information such as the harvest location, property number, date and volume harvested, and must furnish a signed contract to prove they are entitled to harvest on the lands specified. Ground hemlock buyers and buying stations are also subject to these requirements.

Landowners harvesting ground hemlock on their own property, however, may sell their own material and have only to show the buying station proper identification and proof of land ownership (e.g. a recent property tax bill).

The regulations also stipulate cutting specifications for the material: only cuttings from the last three years' growth will be accepted at buying stations, a measure intended to ensure that the plant recovers quickly so that it can be clipped again with a few years.

An annual harvest season has also been established for ground hemlock: harvesting will be allowed only between mid-August and the end of April. Buying stations will not accept material from May 1 to August 15, a period when research indicates that the active compounds in the plants are at their lowest levels. This is also a critical period for many ground-nesting birds and flowering plants.

The use of ground hemlock for pharmaceutical manufacturing has grown into a multimillion-dollar industry in North America. Taxus bark and foliage contain taxanes, chemical compounds used in a number of cancer-fighting drugs.

These compounds were originally derived from the western yew, which grows in the Pacific northwest. Interest in ground hemlock, a related plant species, arose after unsustainable harvesting practices almost wiped out the western yew.

Ground hemlock contains enough of the active compounds to make commercial harvesting economically feasible, to the point that during 2003 and 2004, PEI landowners were complaining to the government about theft, trespassing on their properties and cutting of ground hemlock without permission or payment.

At the province's request, the Public Forest Council investigated the complaints and consequently recommended the development of regulations to establish mandatory standards for the industry. The Environment, Energy and Forestry Department is offering courses to bring harvesters and buying companies into compliance with the new rules. More information is available by calling 902/368-4700. The regulations may be viewed on-line at www.gov.pe.ca/go/GHregulations.

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