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B.C.’s forestry watchdog needs greater independence, ‘new path forward’: former board members

The 25-year-old institution must better address Indigenous Rights, climate change and the public interest, critics say. It’s up for the challenge, board chair promises

After two years on the board of B.C.’s independent forestry watchdog, Tara Marsden, or Naxginkw, felt compelled to write about her experiences. 

She wanted to name the challenges she’d seen at the Forest Practices Board: “undue government influence” over chair appointments, “top heavy” and inefficient organization, a lack of engagement with the public and a lack of partnerships with Indigenous Peoples. 

The board, created in 1994, is mandated to audit and investigate government and industry to ensure the province’s forestry and land management rules are being followed.

But Marsden found systemic problems with the organization were preventing the board from truly protecting the public interest when it comes to B.C.’s forests.

In May, she sent a five-page memo outlining her concerns to the board and other agencies and politicians, including Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development Doug Donaldson. 

“This is an important function, now how can we improve it?” Marsden, who is from Wilp (House) Gamlakyeltxw and works as Wilp sustainability director for the Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs Office, said in an interview with The Narwhal. 

“In the year 2020, how can we work with Indigenous people a little better? How can we really show we’re a public watchdog and be even more transparent?”

For every challenge, Marsden laid out recommendations. She suggested practices for more transparency and independence. She recommended annual surveys to find out more about what the public wants from the watchdog, more recruitment of Indigenous staff and working with First Nations on audits.

“I see the above changes as being critical to a new path forward in a new century and era of climate change uncertainty,” Marsden concluded in her memo.

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Board chair Kevin Kriese received Marsden’s memo. He told The Narwhal she had made significant contributions to the board, including drafting an Indigenous engagement strategy. 

Kriese, who served eight years as assistant deputy minister with the Ministry of Forests, said the board is taking steps to “modernize” in the face of challenges related to forests such as species at risk, watershed integrity and climate change mitigation. He said he wants to complete reports faster and increase public engagement.

“I think the organization is up for it,” he said. “But I also don’t underestimate the challenges.”

An arm’s-length relationship

In 1993, the War in the Woods a mass public action to protect old growth in Clayoquot Sound — became one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in Canadian history. 

The following year, the Forest Practices Board was born as an arm’s-length observer of government and industry. But while the board can investigate and report on industry and government compliance with the Forest and Range Practices Act — the rule for management of all of the province’s forests and wildlife habitat — it cannot enforce the law.

One major criticism Marsden wrote in her memo is that the government holds “undue” influence over the appointment of the board chair, whose term is “at the sole discretion of cabinet or the minister.” 

“If the government does not approve of the direction a certain chair is taking, their term may not be renewed,” she wrote.

She recommended cabinet give up its authority to appoint the chair and board members and delegate that authority to a committee to create “a more non-partisan and balanced” process.

Rachel Holt, a B.C.-based ecologist and former vice-chair of the board, questioned “how somebody who basically has been a government bureaucrat his entire life can be the chair of the independent watchdog.”

Rachel Holt

B.C.-based ecologist Rachel Holt served as vice-chair of the Forest Practices Board and said it needs “airing out” and a fresh mandate. Photo: Anneke Rosch

Holt also expressed concern that some board members and staff have come directly from the industry they are tasked with investigating.

Kriese, who is two years into his four-year term as chair, said he welcomes “healthy skepticism” but has never felt undue influence.

“I don’t feel I have to keep the government happy,” he said. “I feel I have to be fair [in] making recommendations.” 

He referenced the board’s 2019 report on the government’s compliance and enforcement program, which concluded there were “major weaknesses and gaps” in it, including a lack of data and limited resources.

“I never received any negative impact for that,” he said.

Board ‘captive’ to existing regulations

Kriese said he took the job as chair with a simple goal: “to make forestry better.” He also knows many people want the board to do more. 

“We’re a small organization,” he said. “We try and really focus on a specific enough thing [so] we can make meaningful recommendations. We don’t try and boil the ocean.”

Expanding the board’s mandate to do more investigations and look beyond compliance would require more resources and approval from the government, he added. 

The board’s investigation into compliance and enforcement found natural resource officers lacked training and there weren’t enough of them, with 83 officers across the province going into the field to respond to reported violations but not routinely patrolling Crown lands. That, combined with the board’s limited mandate, concerns Marsden.

“Who is actually enforcing and monitoring effectively the forestry industry in B.C.?” she asked. “That’s a huge question.” 

Holt said B.C. forestry laws are lacking, and therefore the board is lacking, since it can only check if companies are compliant.

“If the law is weak, it’s meaningless,” she said. 

B.C.’s forestry laws have frequently come under scrutiny for being lax. Holt co-authored a report that found the little amount of productive old growth that remains in the province is at risk of being logged. Last year, the Ancient Forest Alliance found BC Timber Sales was violating old-growth logging rules by auctioning off Crown land. The province recently opened forest on the Sunshine Coast — home to some of the oldest trees in Canada — to logging and approved 312 new clearcuts in habitat of endangered spotted owls.

Since the board was created, its mandate has remained largely the same, but the province has made major policy changes. The government introduced “professional reliance” in 2004, which reduced its responsibility for environmental monitoring. This left companies to hire professionals to manage monitoring — some of whom told The Narwhal they faced pressure from those companies to alter their recommendations to ensure a project went forward.

Holt said the new legislation’s wording was murky with more room for interpretation, which didn’t fit well with the board’s prescriptive role. Auditing compliance became more complicated. 

“The entire framework of forest management changed over the 20 years of the board,” said Holt. “The mandate of the board didn’t keep up with that shift.”

For example, the board recently investigated old-growth logging on West Thurlow Island by TimberWest in response to a citizen’s complaint that the logging wasn’t meeting the intent of the Great Bear Rainforest land use order to preserve 70 per cent of old growth over time. The citizen said the company was using loopholes to target the forest’s most productive old trees.

Holt says the board’s report “completely sidestepped” the issue of productivity and its investigation found the company was compliant. Kriese admitted debate about the definition of productivity is one the board “doesn’t weigh into.”

The Great Bear loophole: why old growth is still logged in B.C.’s iconic protected rainforest

‘It’s not your role to question’

Marsden said she didn’t feel input from new board members was always welcome by senior staff at the board. She said she would ask questions about the audit process, or whether an investigation could show more evidence, only to hear from staff, ‘It’s not your role to question our investigators or to question the evidence of this investigation.’

“Being told to not ask those types of questions didn’t sit well,” she said.

Marsden also faced challenges as the sole Indigenous voice on the board. She was often keenly aware of how she had a very different worldview. 

“You’re always this kind of lone voice,” she said. “They really don’t understand what you’re saying a lot of the time.”

Tara Marsden Forest Practices Board

Tara Marsden is calling on the Forest Practices Board to improve transparency, public engagement, and Indigenous relations. Photo: Gitanyow Hereditary Chiefs Office

Kriese said the board is “tightening up” its governance structure to make clearer roles for staff and board members, but details are not available yet.

The board also created a strategic plan for 2019-22 that set several priorities including improving Indigenous relations, enhancing communication with the public, monitoring its impact and focusing more on climate change.

‘Opportunity to shine light on the good’

The board still plays an important role in keeping foresters accountable, but Holt recommends bringing in new staff and board members and a fresh mandate. “They need airing out. They need their policy and their mandate broadened,” she said.

She would also like to see the board start looking at the cumulative effects of various industry activities and natural processes on ecosystems.

Ken Wu, executive director of the Endangered Ecosystems Alliance, agrees the board should take on an expanded ecological scope. He said he’s grateful for the board and it plays an important role despite its “deficiencies.”

“It’s not strong enough, its mandate is not broad enough,” he said. “But it’s sure as heck better to have than not to have.”

Marsden would like to see the board expand its mandate to audit how industry and government are meeting their duty to consult with First Nations. She said this could help the board implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which calls on states to “consult and cooperate in good faith” with Indigenous Peoples in order to obtain free, prior and informed consent for development projects.

Since her term ended, Marsden has returned to devoting her time to developing Gitanyow’s environmental monitoring program, working with the Gitanyow Lax’yip Stewardship Guardians. But she still believes in the board’s potential.

“There’s an opportunity to shine light on the good and also on what the challenges are,” she said.

The province is planning a series of changes to the Forest and Range Practices Act, but the introduction of those changes in the house has been delayed due to COVID-19. The province told The Narwhal it couldn’t comment on the proposed changes until they’ve been introduced.

Steph Kwetásel'wet Wood is a Sḵwx̱wú7mesh journalist living and writing in North Vancouver. She writes stories about Indigenous rights, the…

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