BC Forest Service’s 100th birthday approaches: will anything be left to celebrate?

April 28, 2010

In less than two years, British Columbia’s Forest Service will reach an historic milestone, celebrating its 100th year of public service.

But a growing number of former and current public servants are privately beginning to ask whether the venerable institution will survive to its centennial year, and if it does, just what will be left of it.

They’ve good reason to ask, especially after a bombshell of a memo delivered to all Forest Service staff by Deputy Minister of Forests Dana Hayden on April 12.

Hayden’s memo outlines a broad plan to axe 204 positions from the Forest Service. Including cuts announced in January, almost 250 jobs have been earmarked for elimination in just the first four months of 2010, and the memo indicates that more cuts lie ahead.

As always, it will take months to decipher exactly what the cumulative effect of all the job losses is. But for those of us who care about our forests —because we love the sight of salmon spawning in a creek shaded by overhanging trees; or because we have a family member who works with wood for a living; or because we underwent an emergency forest fire evacuation last summer; or because we care about climate change and the ability that trees have to store massive amounts of carbon –the cuts are clearly bad news.

Consider, for example, the 22 men and women in the Forest Service who just received their job terminations and will no longer do compliance and enforcement or “C&E” work on our behalf.

These terminations come on the heels of years of cuts that have already stretched the Ministry’s compliance and enforcement resources far too thin. In November 2004, Sierra Club BC released a study called Axing the Forest Service. The study, drawing on government employment data, found that between 2001 and 2004 the provincial government eliminated 304 Forest Service C&E positions. No department was hit harder, with C&E staff absorbing 38 per cent of the 800 jobs eliminated from the Ministry during those years.

One way to gauge the impact of these cuts is to look at key statistics contained in annual Compliance and Enforcement records – which, thankfully, are still published. In 2000-01, the number of inspections carried out by C&E staff stood at 31,109. The inspections, among other things, are meant to ensure that logging activities don’t damage fish-bearing streams and that logging companies don’t avoid paying timber-cutting or stumpage fees by neglecting to mark the logs they cut. By 2004-05, as the cumulative effect of 304 cuts began to be felt, the number of inspections dropped by nearly 50 per cent to 16,651. During that brutal period of cutbacks C&E staff still managed to maintain a fairly steady stream of enforcement actions including fines, stop-work orders, legal proceedings and other actions. But with resources stretched ever thinner, there is less time for fieldwork, which is essential to protect the public interest, particularly in more remote areas of the province.

One such remote locale is the North Coast, administered out of Prince Rupert. This is the same district where in 2008 fully half of all trees logged were left on the ground to rot, because the logging companies elected to bring only the best logs to market. Incredibly, the government has now elected to close Prince Rupert’s Forest Service office.

Adding to what will inevitably be further downward pressure on inspections is a 2007 decision to have Forest Service C&E personnel assist staff in the eviscerated C&E departments of the ministries of Environment and Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources.

That’s right: the under-resourced Forest Service C&E staff now help the Environment Ministry with toxic waste cases because the latter’s staffing levels are positively anemic by comparison.

The government’s rationale for all the cuts – including those to critically important research and field operations positions – is, of course, lack of funds. But to point the finger at finances is a fool’s game, particularly when government revenues ebb and flow in response to the ebbs and flows of cyclical industries such as the forest sector. It was only five years ago that some of the highest profits in BC’s interior forest industry were recorded and related government revenues were far higher. As industry fortunes revive – and they already are in some sectors, including the coastal pulp industry – logging activities will too. An upswing in logging is precisely the time for more monitoring to protect important forest ecosystems and to ensure that we have viable and sustainable forestry industry activities.

The big question as the Forest Service centennial draws closer, is just whom we’ll have left on the ground to safeguard our interests.

Ben Parfitt is a resource policy analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. George Heyman is executive director of Sierra Club BC. The two organizations recently were among the co-publishers of Managing BC’s Forests for a Cooler Planet: Carbon Storage, Sustainable Jobs and Conservation.