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BC Forest Service felled by bureaucracy

External Reference/Copyright
Issue date: 
November 5, 2010
Publisher Name: 
Vancouver Sun
Anthony Britneff
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With two provincial ministries performing the work of one, inefficiency is inevitable and sustainable-use policies will be ignored.

After bleeding like a wounded pig for almost a decade from cutbacks to reforestation to constraints on spending its voted funds, Premier Gordon Campbell and Forest Minister Pat Bell finally put the ailing BC Forest Service out of its misery with one swift blow, splitting it in two -- the Ministry of Natural Resource Operations (NRO) and the Ministry of Forests, Mines and Lands (FML).

Premier Campbell and Bell didn't consult the public or communities as to whether or not they wished two ministries to manage their provincial forests after almost a century of uninterrupted service by the BC Forest Service. Nor did they offer any plausible rationale for such a dramatic organizational change.

On the BC Forest Service's centenary website, an overenthused Bell pens a characteristically paradoxical message, "As the Forest Service nears the century milestone [2012], we should all take a few moments to look back at what makes this province's forest and range management so great." So why effectively demolish the agency?

Certainly, any seasoned practitioner of public administration would be astonished at a proposal to split policy from operations, regardless of the agency. Had Campbell and Bell created one natural resources ministry, as in Ontario, with responsibility for policy and operations, their rationale for doing so might well point to some efficiencies of scale.

With two ministries now performing the work of one, however, inefficiency will be inevitable: more organizational units, more senior managers, and more turf issues over what still remains a publicly owned resource.

Imagine for a moment that the policy ministry (FML) decides that it is wise to do forest inventories in each management unit every 10 years so that we have robust, updated information on how many trees we have and where following logging operations, forest fires and insect attacks -- all of which is needed to determine sustainable logging rates. But the costs to do so would require the operations ministry (NRO) to spend some $200 million over the same 10-year period. It is easy to see why the new operations ministry -- focused as its mandate will be on moving cutting permits out the door with minimal oversight so as to maximize Crown revenues -- would place a low priority on inventory work. Another worrying trend is the continued isolation of forest policy in the hands of a centralized cabal of senior bureaucrats in Victoria, further imposing the Vancouver-Victoria urban perspective on rural communities. This will further diminish community relevance in determining how local public forests are to be managed and for whom.

Of greater concern will be the ready encouragement cabinet will likely give to moving resource authorizations speedily into operations without due regard for environmental policy and sustainable forest practices.

For some time now, the B.C. Liberals have applied this "one-stop-shop" approach to putting private economic interest ahead of public environmental interest in the form of B.C.'s Oil and Gas Commission, which may well be the model the new Ministry of Natural Resource Operations seeks to emulate. Besides emphasizing the biosphere as a subsidiary of the economy, reorganization of the BC Forest Service into two ministries will also exacerbate the existing problems of forest management stemming from inadequate law and regulation. In their drive to deregulate forest management, the B.C. Liberals have cherry-picked some of the key elements of forest law and abolished them: reforestation of forests killed by fire and pests, and forest inventory, to name two key legal responsibilities of government abolished since 2002. Our forest laws have served us well from 1978 to 2002, when the B.C. Liberals began their ill-fated program of deregulation. But by then, the 1978 Forest Act was already showing signs of age and irrelevance for the new century ahead -- issues of tenure reform that the 2009 Working Roundtable on Forestry chose to ignore.

For the 21st century, we need new forest laws to strengthen community involvement in forest management, to provide institutional stability for management of public forests, and to meet the formidable environmental challenges faced by our children.

To this end we owe it to our children to task a commissioner of forests to advise government on what new forest legislation and different institutional design will meet the challenges of the first half of this century and to demand of our timid politicians the courage to implement the commissioner's recommendations.

Anthony Britneff recently retired from a 39-year career with the BC Forest Service, during which he held senior positions in the inventory, silviculture and forest health programs.


Extpub | by Dr. Radut