Aging Forests Ministry in poor health
The ravages of age usually affect people more than institutions.
But successive reports on two of the oldest government functions in B.C. have found they are in failing health.
A searching look last week at the justice system - a ministry since 1871 - portrayed it as floundering badly.
And this week auditor general John Doyle gave the Forests Ministry's timber management a once-over on the occasion of the ministry's 100th anniversary.
The report is about what you'd expect of any examination of a centenarian - it's confused, helpless and a shadow of its former self.
Independent MLA Bob Simpson was a bit more polite in a little anniversary message he delivered in the legislature. He said the ministry was created after an inquiry commission warned: "Forest policy that vacillates, not because fresh knowledge of forests has been obtained but simply because changes have taken place in politics, can have no value."
So the standalone ministry was created to deliver wise management and feed the growing lumber industry.
A hundred years later, mills can't find logs, large chunks of B.C. have no more mills, other huge chunks have forest killed by beetles and revenue from the trees doesn't even cover the cost of administering the resource (even though those costs have been slashed to the core).
Simpson said the forest service's future is as uncertain as the future of the forest itself.
Doyle's report is more specific but just as bleak. You barely have to open the document before a sinking feeling develops. The first recommendation is that the ministry "develop a plan."
It's a 100-year-old institution responsible for the most obvious, prevalent and valuable natural resource in the province, and an independent look finds it doesn't have a plan.
The ministry disputes that, pointing to legislated requirements and stewardship principles.
But there is a lengthening list of independent reports detailing the results of management fall-downs over the years as the ministry was bled dry of resources and staff.
Another is expected next week from the Forest Practices Board.
Doyle asked three simple questions: Are forest objectives clearly defined?
Are management practices in place to achieve the objectives? Does the ministry appropriately monitor and report results against objectives?
His answers are: No, no and no. The ministry counters part of his findings by citing "Forests for Tomorrow," a replanting program aimed at not-satisfactorily restocked land. It cites millions of seedlings, because the numbers sound impressive. But Doyle counts hectares replanted, which is below what was expected.
And even the ministry notes an important qualifier.
"The appropriate level of government investment in silviculture in the future will continue to be determined in the context of available funding and relative priority to other government investments."
That's the catch that seems to have tripped up the ministry years ago and is still holding it back today.
Somewhere along the way, forest health slipped out of the public consciousness as an issue and fell down the government priority list.
Maybe it's a direct economic link. The industry has been more down than up for the last 20 years. Even when it's profitable, its employment levels are down. So there's no drive to invest in a resource that isn't producing the benefits it once did.
The government legally excused itself from the requirement to replant areas disturbed by natural occurrences a full 10 years ago. Then it divested some stewardship of responsibilities on logged land to industry.
Maybe it's the rural-urban split on political priorities. There's a lot more payback in building a new bridge or school than there is in replanting thousands of hectares of scrub land in the middle of nowhere.
Maybe it's the simple explanation that the Health Ministry consumes all the revenue it needs and everything else gets leftovers.
Whatever the case, Doyle found the area of understocked forest is growing and the timber potential and forest resiliency is being eroded. And the Forests Ministry doesn't have much of a grasp on the problem.
Just So You Know: The auditor general said that in the last two years, ministry estimates show "wildfires affected more than three times as many hectares as the area harvested annually."
When forests are burning down faster than we can log them, and there's no legal obligation to replant the fire loss, B.C. has a problem that should be higher up the priority list.