Government Cuts Leaving Forests Unwatched, Say Former Federal Scientists

This is Part 1 of the series "Science on the Chopping Block," an in-depth look at federal cuts to science programs in Canada and what they mean for some of the country's most important researchers.

As cuts to science budgets and programs continue by the federal government, former scientists and academics who’ve lost their funding say the cuts have upended their careers, compromised knowledge about Canada’s environment and undercut development of the next generation of scientists.

Since the cuts began about five years ago, the federal government has either reduced funding or shut down more than 150 science-related programs and research centres and dismissed more than 2,000 scientists.

With the recently announced cuts to Environment Canada, by 2017 the department will be operating with close to 30 per cent fewer dollars than it had in 2012.  

As the impacts of the cuts grow, DeSmog Canada has reached out to former government and university scientists to hear their stories.

Unwatched Parks?

When Dana Haggarty started at Parks Canada in 2007, her job was to take stock of the ecological integrity of Nahanni National Park Reserve in the Northwest Territories. Haggarty saw it as “a dream position” at an organization where she “saw room for growth.”

It was an exciting time. In 2005, the auditor general had found gaps in the monitoring of parks and Parks Canada was feverishly working to improve its knowledge of regions like Nahanni National Park.

Haggarty, along with other researchers at Parks Canada, was getting ready to announce an expanded boundary for Nahanni in 2009.

Already understaffed and overworked, Haggarty and fellow scientists worked “their butts off” to complete their part of the State of Parks report. The report, produced every five years, provided decision-makers with science-based evidence to help them direct resources.

Haggarty, excited about the future, decided to go on unpaid educational leave to get a PhD in marine biology, focusing on rockfish conservation. She saw it as a career-building move and she wanted to return to Parks Canada and work on restoration efforts along the Pacific coast.

Then major cuts came in 2012. Parks Canada had $29.2-million cut from its budget and 638 jobs were deemed surplus. The cuts drastically affected Parks Canada’s regional service centres, which were consolidated across the country. For her work in the remote area of Nahanni, Haggerty depended heavily on the experienced scientists at the local regional service centre.

She was “just floored” when her mentor Phil Lee’s job was deemed surplus. Lee provided support to scientists in fields in all of the western and northwestern parks, she said.

“There was no way I could do my job without Phil,” Haggarty said. “It said they were absolutely not committed to ecological integrity or basically doing science in parks.”

After the cuts, Haggarty’s position was still available in Nahanni, but there was a lot of confusion around it, she said. On cusp of finishing her PhD, Haggarty saw all of the coastal parks positions she’d hoped to have some day eliminated, so she gave up her job.

“I had such a bad taste in my mouth over what happened to science at Parks Canada. The program that I had worked so hard on and cared so much about was just gutted,” she said.

In response to a previous criticism of its ecological integrity program, Parks Canada said the scientists were hired to develop monitoring programs, but now the agency was moving to another phase of the work.

A 2013 auditor general report stated Parks Canada “has been slow to implement systems for monitoring and reporting on ecological integrity. It has failed to meet many deadlines and targets, and information for decision making is often incomplete or has not been produced.” 

In an e-mail response to questions from DeSmog Canada, Mélissa Larose, a Parks Canada media relations officer, said: “Parks Canada will continue to undertake priority natural resource conservation actions, including species at risk recovery, in national parks and national marine conservation areas that result in tangible and measurable conservation outcomes.”

Haggarty is now considering postdoctoral research, consulting work or moving into the private sector. She would return to Parks Canada if commitments were made to fund the science, she said.

Forgotten Forests?

At one time, Philip Burton managed a multi-disciplinary team of 12 people studying the mountain pine beetle epidemic for the Pacific Forestry Centre.

During the last decade, the beetle — fuelled by climate change — went on an unprecedented tear across British Columbia, infesting and killing large swaths of lodgepole pine trees.

The beetle then expanded beyond its historical range jumping the Rockies into Alberta, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. Today, as Saskatchewan gears up for its battle with the beetle, scientists fear the problem could jump to the boreal forest, potentially spreading across Canada.

It’s after the beetle tears through an area that the story gets interesting, Burton says. How is the forest going to recover? What needs to be done to make the forest more resilient to future pests, especially in a changing climate?

“Just as we were getting to the more interesting aspects of the problem, the plug was pulled,” Burton said.

Jacinthe Perras, spokesperson for Natural Resources Canada, said in an email response to questions that “research on mountain pine beetle is ongoing, including field study in all affected parts of British Columbia, Alberta and beyond.

Burton agrees other aspects of the beetle’s biology are being studied however “field study in all affected parts” is “physically impossible,” he said. Furthermore, even though studies continue “field-based research has clearly decreased over the last many years, with a growing emphasis on policy support, remote sensing, and simulation modelling instead,” he said.

Burton’s position was eliminated and his office in Prince George, connected to the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC), was consolidated with a Victoria location. He had the opportunity to re-apply as a research scientist in Victoria, but declined.

“All employees at UNBC were offered the opportunity to continue their work at the lab in Victoria,” Perras, from Natural Resources Canada, said.

After the pine beetle epidemic moved through British Columbia, the provincial government closed its forest research division and unsustainably ramped up harvest rates to capture the dying pine trees and bycatch, Burton said.

“We are back into 1890s Gold Rush mentality instead of thoughtful planning for the future,” he said.

Burton stayed in the north in Terrace, B.C., working at a satellite campus of UNBC as the regional chair of ecosystem science and management. He was hired to grow the science program, but is doing limited new science.

“In a 30-year career, this is first time where I have run out of ideas as to where to apply for research funding to support field research for graduate students,” Burton said. “The funding is really poor unless you are going to partner up with industry.”

Image Credit: DeSmog Canada

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