Auditor General report on forestry - A trust betrayed
The Auditor General of British Columbia has released a report that is sharply critical of the BC Government and Ministry of Forests’ management of BC forests. Indeed, it would be hard to find a government report that is more withering in its criticism.
In putting together the report, the Auditor General conducted an audit in 2011 to determine whether the Ministry of Forests is “achieving its forest objectives for timber.” In its investigation, the Auditor General asked three questions. These questions had to do with whether the Ministry had “clearly defined” its objectives for timber, whether it was following appropriate “management practices” to achieve these objectives, and whether it was appropriately monitoring and reporting its “timber results”.
On all three objectives, the Ministry has failed shockingly, and the Auditor General makes no bones about this failure. The implications are serious. As the report points out, “the forest sector is important to British Columbia’s economy: it sustains rural and First Nations communities and generates revenues that finance a broad range of public services.” The report makes it very clear that it is the Ministry of Forests that has been “assigned stewardship responsibility” for these forest resources, not just for the current generation of British Columbians, but for those that are to come. But there are serious problems with this “stewardship” that could have long term negative consequences for the people of our region and province.
Let’s look at some of the results of the Auditor General’s audit. The provincial government, prior to the Liberals coming to power in 2000, used to be responsible for reforesting areas “degraded by natural disturbances” such as insect infestation, diseases and wildfires. However, in 2002, the Liberal government removed that legal obligation.
What have been the results of this change in policy? By the Ministry’s own estimations, there are about 1.1 million hectares in BC that are “suitable for replanting” as a result of natural disturbances of various kinds, as well as unsatisfactory “restocking”. So how has the Ministry responded to this huge shortfall? It has replanted an average of 8,730 hectares a year over the past five years, not even meeting its own puny and completely inadequate target of 22,000 hectares a year.
The report takes issue with the argument that “natural regeneration” will solve the problem in areas devastated by natural disturbances. It points out that “sites left to regenerate naturally usually have a lower timber volume per hectare … and do not have the benefit of the nursery seeds used for high productivity and genetic gain.” In addition, it argues that “when the ministry does not replant, it misses an opportunity to influence species composition,” which is an important issue when climate change may be demanding that new species be introduced to some parts of the provincial forest.
In its own diplomatic way, the Auditor General’s report states that “avoiding replanting today will reduce opportunities for future generations.” What will “reduced opportunities” mean for communities and the province in the future? We can only guess, but, one thing is for sure, it will not be pretty, as we are already seeing with the current round of mill closures that have been going on for last several years. The current allowable annual cut in the province is 78.6 million cubic metres, which is expected to decline to 50 or 60 million over the next 50 years. But even these figures are suspect, especially when, as the report repeatedly criticizes, so much of the Ministry data is incomplete or simply based on guesswork.
The Auditor General also repeatedly makes the point that Ministry oversight is severely deficient, pointing out that forest practice inspections have declined “from over 31,000 in 2000/01 to less than 15,000 in 2008/09”. A large portion of oversight has been privatized and handed over to the forest companies, but the Auditor General does not appear to be impressed by the results.
The report notes that although inspections have decreased dramatically, “this reduction did not appear to be related to a greater degree of compliance by industry,” which is now responsible for much of the oversight previously done by government. While acknowledging that forest companies are achieving their forestry restocking requirements (in terms of numbers to trees planted required by regulation), the report finds fault with the fact that the companies are engaging in such practices as “harvesting of high-value species and then reforesting with lower-value species.”
In addition, despite the previous disasters associated with forest monoculture (as with the pine beetle infestation), some forestry professionals have pointed out that industry has “a tendency to plant lodgepole pine as the single dominant species” rather than utilizing a diversity of species which maximizes forest resiliency. In retrospect, or course, this practice is not so surprising, given the fact that, as the Auditor General comments, “reforestation is a cost to forest companies, not an investment.”
And there is much more damning information in the report, regarding the utter lack of planning and management of our forests by this government. It is not as if much or any of it is new. To their credit, organizations like the Western Silviculture Contractors Association have been raising these issues for years, as have many researchers, scientists and forestry professionals. Certainly, however, when a branch of government itself – the Auditor General’s office – raises these issues it is not something anyone can ignore.
The blame falls clearly on the shoulders of the provincial government, as well as the various Ministers of Forests, including Pat Bell, who was Minister for a number of years. For the last while, we have been hearing from the provincial government all sorts of glowing news about exports of forest products to China and Asia. In addition, we are bombarded with reports on how mining is catapulting ahead in our region, and that we are on the cusp of a great leap forward for our region. Bell is even claiming that we are coming into “a very strong economic period” that is “probably as strong as we’ve seen since the 1960s or early 1970s.”
Is all of this hype and euphoria to cover up the fact that our forests and forest industry are in poor shape, that this provincial government has badly mismanaged our forest resource, and that it has no vision or plan to move it forward? Yes, there are external factors that have impinged upon the forest industry, including the downturn in the U.S. housing market and the pine beetle epidemic. But as the Auditor General’s report reveals, there is another problem as well – and that is the provincial government and the Forest Ministry itself. Both have a lot of explaining to do.
Peter Ewart is a columnist and writer based in Prince George, British Columbia. He can be reached at: email@example.com