Agencies blow whistle on forestry self-policing

Problems with deregulation threaten to erode public trust in forest management, industry groups say   

Problems in British Columbia’s forest regulatory system are raising flags among a growing number of agencies and organizations, prompting some to say the province is at risk of losing public confidence in resource development.

The alarm and the calls for change are coming from the watchdog Forest Practices Board, the Association of B.C. Forest Professionals. which governs foresters, and the Professional Employees Association that represents public sector professionals.

Further, the B.C. auditor general, the B.C. ombudsperson and the Forest Practices Board have all written reports within the last two years on the failures associated with the practice of relying on professionals employed by resource companies to manage the province’s forests.

They may disagree on the causes or severity of the problems they see in the forests, but all agree that the province needs to act.

Issues identified include:

• An absence of clarity in legislation and regulations.

• Not enough transparency over how land use decisions are made and whether the recommendations of forest professionals are being put into practice by forest licensees.

• Not enough emphasis on compliance and enforcement by the province.

•Regulations that compel a forest company to preserve an old-growth stand, yet allow a gas exploration company, operating under different rules, to move in and log it.

• Not enough forest professionals on the ground – whether in government or private practice.

• Incidents of forest professionals being either unwilling or unable to stop operations where safety is at stake.

Scott McCannell, executive director of the Professional Employees Association, said the issue boils down to the government having abandoned its role as a knowledgeable owner and steward of the land base when it introduced regulatory changes in 2004.

“Ultimately, when there is significant lack of compliance it takes away from social licence,” McCannell said. “And that may result in the public really opposing the significant economic development that is before British Columbia, not only in the forest industry, but in mining and LNG opportunities.”

Sharon Glover, CEO of the Association of B.C. Forest Professionals, said in a recently-published report to members that the association has found instances of members not following required obligations in one particularly troubling area – the safety of forest road bridges. It has launched an investigation into the practices of the foresters involved.

“Recent environmental disasters should be a stark reminder and serve as a warning that all it takes is one incident to undermine public trust and social licence,” Glover said in her report. Her reference is to a mining issue: the Aug. 4 collapse of the Mount Polley tailings dam and the downstream damage caused to Hazeltine Creek and Quesnel Lake.

The association’s actions were prompted by a March  5 Forest Practices Board report documenting at least two dozen unsafe bridges constructed on forest roads. A subsequent investigation by the foresters’ association has found incidents where bridges were built:

• Without professional input or were missing all the required professional work.

• In which professionals were acting outside their areas of competency.

• In which they were either unwilling or lacked authority to stop operations.

• In which crossings were built over fish-bearing streams or within community watersheds, which resulted in the streams being filled with silt or rock.

The association is looking into the conduct of its members over the issue of bridge crossings and is considering toughening its standards. Practices that are now only guidelines would come under the umbrella of the Foresters Act, making them compulsory.

“Members who do not make the time to become current and competent, or who feel pressured by their employers to take shortcuts with respect to forest road crossings, will have the strength of the Foresters Act to support them,” she wrote.

It’s not that professionals are not living up to the responsibilities given to them by the province when it cut back government oversight in favour of self-regulation, said Forest Practices Board chair Tim Ryan. But in too many cases they are being asked to make decisions where there are no clear public objectives and where there is insufficient transparency to instil public confidence.

Ryan sees the lack of regulatory clarity as a key flaw in British Columbia’s reliance on professionals to take responsibility for – and to sign off on – decisions they make regarding resource extraction. One of the most glaring examples, he said, is that legislation does not clearly define what is timber and what is wildlife.

“You are putting a professional in the position of interpreting something,” he said. “Where it is clear what is expected of them, for the most part, foresters are successful in acting in a professional manner that takes care of the public’s interest.

“The challenge that’s out there, though, is where professionals are being expected to balance a land-use decision or interpret government objectives or public objectives that are not clearly stated.”

He tempered his remarks by noting that on average, professional reliance has been successful.

“It has allowed government to streamline its processes and to become more efficient; for industry as well. There was never a lot of sense in having a professional check another professional’s work.”

Mike Larock, director of professional practice and forests stewardship at the Association of B.C. Forest Professionals, said the system is working but in some areas, it needs improvement.

“We complain about the 10% that is not working,” he said, but we do get out there and start doing the work [to fix it]. Over the long haul, we are getting better and better information.”

“We are achieving everything that the public wants, which can sometimes be contradictory. They want the employment as well as the recreation and habitat.”

Larock said under the current regulatory structure, not all operators on the land base are subject to the same regulations. He personally favours one set of requirements for all operators, whether they are forest companies or oil and gas companies.

“There is only one land. And it is being used for everything. It makes sense that there shouldn’t be an oil and gas line or a transmission line having a different set of obligations than a forest company.

“It is still the practice of forestry, whatever the use is,” he said.