Before moving to government 10 years ago, Diane Nicholls, B.C.’s new chief forester, had a full career on the private-sector side of forest management. As she tackles the major decisions ahead, she will undoubtedly draw on that breadth of experience.
Nicholls, who was named permanently to the post Feb. 26, is taking over as the province grapples with a shrinking supply of timber from its interior forests after a mountain pine beetle epidemic that has chewed through 10 million hectares of forests.
Now, she is the forester on the hot seat whose job it will be to determine allowable harvests, which were increased to salvage beetle-damaged trees during the infestation, but will have to be cut — in some cases dramatically — while forests recover.
In forestry management circles, that recovery period is referred to as the midterm, which is expected to take decades.
“It’s a massive responsibility with these decisions,” Nicholls said. The decisions now will have “all sorts of cascading decisions” related to mill closures and job losses.
The challenge is finding a balance between what communities need from forests in terms of timber to support jobs and what needs to be preserved to sustain forest ecology.
“Forestry is very long term and (decisions have) long-term implications,” Nicholls said. “You can make a decision that’s very helpful in the short term, but when you look out 50 to 100 years, it may not be the (right) decision for the long term.”
Nicholls stepped into the chief forester’s position on an interim basis at the end of 2014 when her predecessor, Jim Snetsinger, was seconded to other duties.
She is the first woman to hold the chief forester’s job and is, so far, undaunted by the challenge.
“Forestry is my passion,” Nicholls said, “and I see it as an opportunity of regrowing the forest and regrowing all of the collaborations that can occur (in managing forests).”
It was a passion Nicholls grew into after searching for a satisfying career that would involve being outdoors.
Growing up in a rural part of Surrey, “farm country,” Nichols said, “you’re always outside and doing things.”
Another formative experience was a summer job at Mount Robson Provincial Park, which “opened up a whole new world.”
“When I was looking at graduating, I was thinking, ‘What am I going to do with my life,’ I thought, ‘Well, I’d like to work outside.’”
Her path led her first to the BCIT forest technician program, followed by forestry studies at the University of Alberta and a stint with the Alberta Forest Service before heading to the University of B.C., where she received her bachelor of science degree in the late 1980s.
“I really wanted to work on the coast,” Nicholls said. “And at the time in the industry it was tough to get a job on the coast if you had your training in a place like Alberta.
Then her career took her up and down the coast from Vancouver Island to Haida Gwaii, starting with a small forestry consulting company to jobs with major multinational firm MacMillan Bloedel, then Weyerhaeuser when it absorbed the Canadian firm in the 1990s.
Nicholls’ advance through the ranks coincided with the height of the so-called war in the woods, with conflicts such as the protests in 1993 over old-growth logging at Clayoquot Sound.
And as forestry broadened in its approaches to accommodating more interests, Nicholls often found herself in consulting roles, representing her employers in programs such as forest certification under environmental standards.
“It was a very diverse job,” Nicholls said. “I worked with a lot of First Nations and communities (where we had operations).”
In that respect, Nicholls said it was the collaboration she enjoyed most — making connections and co-operating on finding “different ways of thinking.”
Nicholls’ last private-sector job was with Weyerhaeuser’s successor, Island Timberlands, when her interests drew her to the government side of forest management in 2006.
“I thought, ‘What’s the piece I’m missing?’” Nicholls said. “And the piece I was missing was government (experience).”
Her view was that being on the government side, with its legislative and regulatory tools, was an opportunity to effect bigger changes. And she believed her industry experience gave her an insight to forest management that would be helpful on the government side.
Not that she could speak for environmental groups or First Nation communities, “but I did have a window of understanding (to their interests).”
Nicholls’ permanent appointment was greeted favourably by the University of B.C.’s dean of forestry.
“I’m impressed, I’m hoping she’ll do a great job,” John Innes said.
Innes worked with Nicholls on finding ways for government to tap the university’s expertise on policy-related research. The project didn’t go far, but he found Nicholls to be “refreshingly constructive” in the cooperation they were trying to foster.
“She is very competent, somebody who could do a great job, if given the freedom to do it,” Innes said.
Innes added that qualifier, he said, because the task of setting allowable harvests can get “very political,” with a lot of pressure on the province to focus on the economic side of providing timber for mills versus the overall ecological health of forests.
Nicholls “brings a lot of credibility to the role,” said Christine Gelowitz, CEO of the Association of B.C. Forest Professionals, the governing body for professional foresters.
Gelowitz worked with Nicholls in government where she witnessed how Nicholls put her breadth of experience to work.
And from what she has seen of Nicholls so far as chief forester, Gelowitz said she brings a long-term vision for B.C.’s forests.
“She really understands the issues and the context of the issues,” Gelowitz said, and has a real passion for forest stewardship.