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23rd September 2018
By Briony Penn

September 6

Can we undo, or fix, the 17-year-old Professional Reliance Model used to regulate BC’s resource industries?

AN AUGUST ROUNDTABLE MEETING to discuss the future of BC’s public forests is held in the Cedar Room of the Legislature. It seems appropriate, as the threatened western red cedar is one of the victims of 17 years of a failed regulatory model for our public forests—at least according to most of the people seated around the table. It is also the first time in 17 years that this type of citizen engagement about the future of public forests has been convened in the Legislature.

The person responsible for spearheading this conversation is Sonia Furstenau, Green MLA. She introduced one of the four conditions in the NDP/Green Supply and Confidence Agreement: a commitment to review the professional reliance model (PRM) of forest management in British Columbia.

The seemingly innocuous request “to ensure the legal rights of First Nations are respected, and the public’s expectations of a strong, transparent process is met,” understates the huge significance of PRM in the lives of British Columbians. It has affected the security of our drinking water, the viability of wildlife populations, the exacerbation of forest fires, the occurrence of disasters like Mount Polley, and the failure to uphold indigenous rights.

PRM, put in place by the provincial Liberals, is at the heart of how 95 percent of British Columbia is managed and regulated. Fifty-four million hectares are in public ownership; half of that is under forest management agreements. Most British Columbians had never heard of PRM—before the last provincial election sent everyone scurrying to look it up. But that is all changing.

No one is better qualified for the task of defining the slippery term than the publicly-appointed reviewer, lawyer Mark Haddock, whose experience with an independent review in 2015 made him the obvious candidate to lead this huge task. PRM is “the regulatory model in which government sets the natural resource management objectives or results to be achieved, professionals hired by proponents [e.g. forest companies, mining companies] decide how those objectives or results will be met, and government checks to ensure objectives have been achieved through compliance and enforcement.” At least that’s how it is supposed to work.

One of the attendees at the August conference, John Irving, CFO of the SIMS Group, a construction firm in Prince George—and no fan of PRM—refers to it as “the fox guarding the chicken coop.”

Haddock’s review, which came out at the end of June, contains 121 recommendations stemming from the 4,600 submissions. Those submissions lined up along citizen vs corporate interests “with fully 88 percent [of citizens] believing that the PRM does not strike a good balance between environmental protection and resource management,” Haddock reported.

The two roundtables convened by Furstenau this August to gauge response to Haddock’s recommendations roughly reflect the same citizen vs corporate split. The citizens opposed come from every corner of British Columbia, whether rural or urban, white or First Nation communities, resource or tourist towns, Mackenzie or Metchosin.

Alan Martin of the BC Wildlife Federation, a 40,000-member organization of hunters, fishers and trappers, and Torrance Coste of Western Canada Wilderness Committee, both call the model “an abject failure.” Pat Crook, mayor of Mackenzie, representing a northern resource town that wouldn’t normally sing from the same song sheet as southern environmental groups, describes the current forest management in the north as “sloppy and poor. There is little regard for other users on the land, or for the other values such as water and other riparian features.”

Irving, who routinely works on public projects under PRM, argues that the public are not getting value from the model. “The economics are not better under professional reliance.” Also invited to the roundtable were emerging alliances like the Coalition of Forestry Reform that includes 16 (so far) small communities like Clearwater, Shuswap, Clinton, Juan de Fuca, etc; and the Professional Reliance Working Group of Concerned Citizens, a coalition of the Professional Employees Association, Ecojustice, Organizing for Change, BC Wildlife Federation, BC Government Employees Union, Fraser Watershed Initiative, Evidence for Democracy, and others.

With smoke from forest fires permeating the Cedar room at the August 21 meeting, stakeholder groups express the urgency for action. Stories are shared of corporate mismanagement under the regulatory watch, or lack thereof, of PRM. Examples include the accumulation of burn piles on cutblocks exacerbating already critical fire conditions; exceeding 400 percent of the recommended cut level in the largest Timber Supply Area; playing “stumpage bingo,” a type of fraud through stumpage in an unmonitored environment; ignoring guidelines on the movement of spruce beetle-infested wood and thereby spreading the beetle through the region; and failing to take into account the increasing effects of climate change and other cumulative impacts.

Attendees share their frustration that district managers have no legal authority to protect local communities’ drinking water—or habitat for moose, mountain caribou and other threatened wildlife. Citizens have no ability to review roads or cutblocks, or protect culturally important sites, old-growth forests, or recreational and tourism opportunities. Union representatives attribute this to the loss of 1,700 public employees who were the boots on the ground providing the science, inventory and oversight—but were laid off since PRM came into effect.

Furstenau had invited all stakeholders to provide feedback to guide the next steps by government, but there are two noticeable absences. Corporate and professional associations, like the Association of BC Forest Professionals and the BC Council of Forest Industries, haven’t turned up, even though it is billed as a collaborative opportunity. Instead, the Forest Professionals are expressing concern that the principle of self-regulation is “undermined” in Haddock’s recommendations. The Council of Forest Industries writes in a press release that they are disappointed with the report “drifting well beyond [Haddock’s] terms of reference to propose unjustified changes to the forestry regulatory regime unrelated to professional reliance.”

The top two recommendations in Haddock’s report are on governance, due to be implemented by the government in the fall sitting of the legislature. The first recommendation calls for the creation of an Office of Professional Regulation and Oversight that would monitor and direct forest (and other) professionals. The second calls for the passing of legislation to make this work. There was a clear mandate from the roundtable to proceed with this as an essential and urgent first step, but the 119 other recommendations must not slip through the cracks.

The lone logging company at the roundtable, Timberwest, offered an opening gambit to government: If it wants the companies to protect values other than timber, government has to set those objectives clearly.

Independent forest professional Martin Watts has been calling for clear forest policy that includes management objectives with measurable performance benchmarks that can be monitored over time, along with strengthened forest legislation. “These are public forests, not private. We need to return accountability and transparency to the public sector and hold government accountable for their work,” Watts says. He has filed a lawsuit against the government on this issue, and the pending case has highlighted the critical importance of governance recommendations that enable professional organizations to regulate firms, and provide whistleblower protection and competency requirements. “If these had been in place, I probably would not have had to resort to the courts,” Watts observes. Mackenzie’s Mayor Crook went further: “We need regulations to save the resource industry in the north.” The need for modernized land use planning was a stipulation by all.

Van Andruss from the Coalition for Forestry Reform tells Focus, “This is just the beginning and we won’t go away until drinking water is safe in every community. We are in this for the long term.” Bob Peart, representing the PR Working Group, states: “I had no idea how bad it was out there. Forest practices are terrible and we will push for every recommendation to be implemented.” Watts sees the restoration of science and funding for wildlife management as the top priority to return a level of public trust to government. Megan Scott, representing the BCGEU, is calling for the restoration of professionals in the ministries as key to public health, safety and trust. She points to the loss of 25 percent of staff in compliance and monitoring as the cause of much of the failure of the system.

The key question for everyone attending is: How far will Furstenau and the Greens push the NDP if they don’t implement the recommendations? If the NDP cave to industry, will the Greens use the Agreement to push back? As Peart states: “Horgan has been given a silver platter by Haddock’s report. He should take it.”

Furstenau is adamant that she is not going away either. This is the issue, as played out at Shawnigan Lake, that drove her into politics and got a review of PRM on the agenda in the first place. With the majority of BC citizens supporting reform of public land management in some form, it seems impossible for Horgan not to run with it, especially with the smoke from forest fires still lingering in our lungs.

Briony Penn is currently working with Xenaksiala elder, Cecil Paul, Wa’xaid on Following the Good River, due out in 2019. She is also the author of (the prize-winning) The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan.