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Forest Oversight Buzz Sawed

Public servants who policed forest practices have been decimated, says a new report. Can B.C. timber firms be trusted to police themselves?

By Chris Tenove 7 Dec 2004 | TheTyee.ca

Chris Tenove is a journalist and broadcaster based in Vancouver. He writes for magazines such as The Walrus, Canadian Geographic, Reader’s Digest, and Maclean’s, and produces radio documentaries for CBC and the Radio Netherlands World Service. He is a contributing editor for The Tyee. For more information, see www.tenove.com.

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Dave Chutter, MLA for the Yale-Lillooet riding, sat at the front of the Lillooet Recreation Centre before a seething crowd. Nearly 400 people had come to vent their confusion, frustration and anger. This was February 28th, 2002, just a few weeks after the provincial government had dropped the hammer on the town. More than 50 public service jobs would be cut, most of them from the local office of the Ministry of Forests.

When Lyle Knight got the chance to speak, the engineering technician asked his colleagues from the Forest Service to stand. “I want you to look at the faces of people whose jobs you just took away,” Knight told Chutter.

Over the last four years, more than 800 people have been cut from the Ministry of Forests, according to Axing the Forest Service—a report released today by the BC Chapter of the Sierra Club of Canada. These job losses are part of the massive public sector cutbacks under the provincial Liberal government. But the job cuts in the ministry also coincided with a drastic change in the province’s approach to forestry. To a degree that unsettles many observers, the Liberals new “results-based” strategy shifts responsibility for monitoring forest health away from government and toward private industry.

Critics note that just a few years ago, government officials caught private timber firms trying to mislead the province on timber appraisals worth millions of dollars.

With logging companies increasingly asked to monitor their own activities, do we really know what’s going on in B.C.’s woods?

Black Thursday’s cuts

Lyle Knight and his 34 colleagues at the Ministry of Forests (MOF) district office in Lillooet knew that cuts were coming. But when they were herded into the boardroom and saw Greg Koyl – the assistant deputy minister – they knew something big was happening. “It was a devastating day,” Knight says. “When they announced that our office was closing, there were guys in their forties and fifties with tears streaming down their faces.”

Those cuts came on “Black Thursday” – January 17, 2002 – the day that the provincial Liberals announced their plan to make the deepest public sector cutback in Canadian history.

Eleven MOF district offices have closed in the last three years, including the one in Lillooet. The largest job loss in the MOF occurred in Victoria, but 647 out of the 800 lost positions came from smaller communities around the province.

According to the Sierra Club report, nearly 40 percent of the 800 positions cut from Forests were Scientific Technical Officers like Lyle Knight in Lillooet. These employees make up a large part of the Forest Service’s compliance and enforcement staff. Dramatic cuts were also made to personnel in silviculture (responsible for reforestation), forest inventory (assessments of logging and recreation possibilities for forest terrain around the province), scaling (measuring and valuing logs), and research. The authors of the Sierra Club report argue that reductions in monitoring and research are particularly dangerous now that B.C.’s forests are threatened by pine beetle infestations, busy fire seasons, and other dangers exacerbated by global climate change.

Liberals opposed NDP’s cuts

The Liberal cuts to the Forest Service come on the heels of cutbacks made by the previous New Democrat government. When in opposition, the Liberals did not always approve of cuts to the MOF. In 1998, George Abbott – then Liberal forestry critic and now Minister of Sustainable Resource Management – criticized the NDP when they announced a $7 million cut in the MOF’s research funding. Abbott told the Vancouver Sun that cutbacks like this might “degrade the quality of our forests.” Any harm to B.C.’s forests will affect the provincial economy, Abbott warned.

At the same time that they have chopped away at the ranks of the MOF, the Liberals have introduced an entirely new forestry regime. Forests Minister Mike de Jong unveiled the Liberal “results-based” strategy in the fall of 2002. According to the new approach, government sets the sustainability objectives, but forest companies are given more flexibility to decide how to meet them. This shift is supposed to reduce the costs and “green tape” that industry encounters. The new legislation, called the Forest and Range Practices Act, took effect January 31, 2004.

George Hoberg, head of the Department of Forest Resources Management at theUniversity of British Columbia, says that industry and government are still trying to iron out their respective responsibilities. “We’ve moved from one model – the Forest Practices Code, which was never fully implemented – to a new model, the definition of which is uncertain,” says Hoberg. (In 2002, Professor Hoberg led a consultative process to hear concerns about changes to forest management before they went into effect. ).

New costs to industry

Industry might not be able or willing to carry out all the functions that the Forest Service is trying to shed, says Hoberg. “The whole purpose of the Liberal New Era reforms was to reduce cost to industry,” he says, “so there’s been real tension between government and industry over that shift in responsibilities.”

Professor Hoberg worries that forest management around the province might suffer if neither the government nor industry will take on the duties previously assigned to the MOF. “It’s hard to make high-quality decisions about how to use the land base when you don’t even have adequate measurement of inventory, adequate monitoring, or knowledge of basic processes through research,” he says.

The new strategy also shifts more responsibility onto professional foresters, who can now certify the plans made by private companies to log public lands. In fact, according to this year’s Forest Statutes Amendment Act – which amends the Liberals’ own Forest and Range Practices Act – government officials will be extremely limited in their ability to review plans made by professional foresters.

‘Conflict of interest’

“There are obvious conflict of interest issues here,” says Andrew Gage, a staff lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law.  Gage believes that most foresters will be principled enough to put forward plans that are unpopular with their employers. But he worries that some will be unduly influenced by their employer’s bottom line.

“Their jobs are ultimately reliant on the forest companies,” says Gage. “It’s unfair to continually put the professional foresters in situations where they might have to put the public interest over their employer.”

Gage argues that the Forest Statues Amendment Act – also known as Bill 33 – is “part of a series of legislative changes that are designed to offload government responsibilities onto industry or to private professionals hired by industry.

“What you’d expect, if our fears are realized, is an increase in problems like landslides or like damage to endangered species habitat. Basically, when it comes to decisions that balance the private and public interest, there may be a consistent bias for making choices that favors the forest companies over the public.”

MOF easier to mislead

Verne Rasmussen, a Forest Protection Technician who works with the Ministry of Forests in Lillooet, has a similar concern. He’s one of five MOF officials left in Lillooet, working out of a small building next to the large – and now deserted – MOF district office. Rasmussen worries that some loggers will be tempted to take shortcuts, knowing that there will be fewer inspections by MOF officials.

He also suspects that some companies are paying the minimum stumpage rate – 25 cents a cubic metre – for timber that should be worth more. (Stumpage rates are the amount the province charges companies to log forests—rates are set according to the quality of timber and the ease with which it can be removed.)

“It’s like giving people the key to the grocery store and asking them to put money in the till when their done,” says Rasmussen. “[Loggers] have to make money, fine, but when they can cut corners I’m sure some people will do it.”

That’s a valid concern. Back in 2001, a MOF investigation found that companies were misleading the ministry in their timber appraisals. That same year, the Sierra Legal Defence Fund released a report on the industry practice and estimated that it could have cost the province $138 million over the previous 15-month period. In one case, according to a subsequent investigation by the Vancouver Sun, TimberWest paid only $22,700 for timber that was originally valued at $3.7 million.

Since then it has become even easier to mislead the MOF—according to the Sierra Club report released yesterday, cutbacks at MOF now mean that, on average, ministry scalers are able to examine just one out of every 147 truckloads of wood.

Rumours of shortcuts

Few people believe that the old forest practice codes were perfect. For decades the province allocated increasingly large timber harvests to industry, in order to maximize the government’s own revenues. But environmental issues, First Nations land claims, changes in technology and industry structure, and the United States softwood lumber tariffs have all made this system less appealing for government. The Liberals “results-based” strategy – handing more responsibility over to industry – is one way out of this thicket. But without adequate supervision, and without kind of research that private companies are reluctant to pay for, British Columbia’s woodlands are at risk.

Bain Gair, the publisher of the Bridge River – Lillooet News, says that rumors about shortcuts taken in the forests are just starting to trickle in to his office. But the that the only people deep enough in the forest to detect these problems are the loggers themselves, he says, and they are unlikely to report on each other’s infractions, let alone their own.

“Just now, we’re starting to hear stories of improper road-building and other kinds of practices that you expect might slip through with less MOF oversight,” Gair says. “But in the vast majority of cases, nobody will know about problems until it’s too late.”

Chris Tenove is a contributing editor for The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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