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Column

Quick cost savings in British Columbia may prove to be quicksand in the forests

By Jim Stirling

British Columbia's Liberal government is moving in haste to usher in change.

A sparse exchequer has triggered the core services review of all government ministries and agencies. The goal is to re-define the provincial government's role, to establish a priority list of services and decide on a strategy to deliver them in the most efficient and cost effective manner.

The government has given notice that the process will include unprecedented cuts to the ranks of provincial civil servants. As many as a third-11,500 jobs-could vanish within the next three years.

A firm hand at the tiller is one thing. The simultaneous introduction of a raft of fundamental changes can be quite another. The forest industry has seen what can happen when the government launches a new plan without adequately assessing its implications.

An example was the BC government's proposal to use corporate profits as anchor to a new market-based stumpage system. The idea was to tie a stumpage system to the industry's rate of return on capital. It would be assessed annually, making it less responsive to market fluctuations from the present, and inadequate, quarterly review. The plan could, as critics pointed out, benefit the less efficient and debt ridden companies. And corporate bottom lines can be artfully managed. To its credit, the government was quick to withdraw its flawed proposal. The worrisome part of it all was that the plan ever saw the light of day from the quiet backroom where it was hatched into the forum of new public policy.

It's unclear how deep a cut the government's job axe will make on the Ministry of Forests. It won't be immune, that's for sure, and it will affect Victoria, the regions and district levels. But here is another case where too much haste could wreak havoc. The ministry is having serious problems at existing staffing levels to fulfil its stewardship and monitoring roles on forest lands.

The forest industry has complained long and legitimately about the costs of the regulatory millstone around its corporate neck. Caught in the middle between policy and practitioner are the civil servants in the Ministry of Forests. Their siege has been especially intense since 1994 when the NDP government introduced the Forest Practices Code. The concept was good. The knee-jerk, ill-conceived method of implementation has proved a huge source of frustration for all concerned. Front line people in the forest service were charged with making the thing work, trying to fit the code's prescriptive regulations into industry's definition of a workable timber harvesting system. The Liberals have pledged to respond to industry's plea for a more results-based code, one where the end result is more important than the method used to achieve it.
The Forest Practices Board is an auditor for industry's compliance with code requirements. In a recent report, it complained that results-based code experiments were not being monitored closely enough either by the industry conducting them or the ministry people checking for compliance.

It's not unreasonable to expect that inspections will become increasingly necessary as the nuts and bolts of a practically managed, results-based Forest Practices Code are engineered. That will take more people and more time, not less.

There is another, more insidious danger inherent in not maintaining a transparent and consistent monitoring system for code compliance. The intent of the Forest Practices Code was to assure purchasers of BC wood products that the landscape was not being raped and pillaged to produce these products. It was intended to demonstrate that BC's forest practices are among the most stringent in the world.

The forest industry should need no reminding of how effective environmental propaganda has proven to be. If the code compliance and inspection system shows even a perception of floundering, the ever-vigilant environmental sharks will circle quickly, sensing a feeding frenzy. With all the other problems the industry faces, it's too much of a risk to take. Stopping that one in its tracks before it inflicts damage is smarter than scrambling around with damage control after the fact. That kind of activity implies the criticisms have merit. The industry needs to be categoric and forthright that they do not.

The Forest Practices Code goes hand in glove with the efforts forest companies are making toward certification as a means to assure customers their products come from soundly managed and sustainable forests. It is an expensive and arduous process, be it through the Canadian Standards Association, the International Standards Organization, the Forest Stewardship Council or other recognized, independent, third party standards arbiters.
The Liberals promise a reduction in and a streamlining of the scope of regulations affecting the provincial forest industry. Does that equate directly with a significant reduction in ministry staffing levels?

Probably not, a re-defining of assignments for faster approvals is more likely. Shunting ministry functions off into the private sector may sound appealing to a business-oriented, cash-strapped government.

Credibility is an issue there. The forests belong to the people who deserve and require a fair return for use of their resource.
The Liberals are dedicated to their job cuts. But in the case of the Ministry of Forests, at least, quick cost savings may prove to be quicksand. This is a time to put caution ahead of haste.

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