British Columbia’s Forest Practices Board (FPB) is 20 years old. It was created in December 1994 to provide independent oversight of forest and range practices in B.C. and to help ensure compliance with legislation.
In 1999, B.C.’s Supreme Court (and later the Supreme Court of Canada) upheld the board’s right to comment on the soundness of forest practices beyond just looking at compliance, thus affirming the board’s essence as a public watchdog.
In 2004, the results-based Forest and Range Practices Act replaced the prescriptive Forest Practices Code, and the FPB’s oversight role took on added significance as onus shifted to reliance on industry’s resource professionals. In 2005, the FPB’s role expanded again under a new Wildfire Act in the wake of the epic 2003 wildfire season.
Underpinning the FPB is its audit program, through which the board scrutinizes practice compliance by hundreds of forest and range licensees as well as auditing government’s enforcement of its own legislation. Audits necessarily follow a tight methodology and the audit program also helps establish the board’s credibility with licensees, public, government, and other resource agencies. As a consequence, the FPB has occasionally been invited to bring its expertise to areas not normally part of its mandate – for example the Nisga’a Treaty implementation and outside-perspective work for B,C.’s Oil and Gas Commission.
A key role of the FPB is to address public concerns through dialogue, mediation and, if necessary, through formal complaint investigations. The board has published more than 200 complaint reports and has responded to hundreds of issues through this process. It is worthwhile for anyone with a concern about forest or range practices to pick up the phone and have a conversation; even if it doesn’t lead to a formal complaint, it is grist for the mill and will likely surface in other aspects of the board’s work.
A strategic part of the FPB’s work is investigating and reporting on issues of emerging public interest. For example, the board’s 2011 report Cumulative Effects: From Assessment Towards Management was influential in bringing cumulative effects onto the government’s agenda. Through its special reports, the board has made hundreds of recommendations to improve practices, policy and legislation, many of which have been implemented by licensees and government.
Finally, the FPB can participate in appeals to B.C.’s Forest Appeals Commission to represent matters of public interest.
For two decades, the FPB has, within the limits of its enabling legislation, done an effective job as a watchdog. It has no regulatory authority beyond requiring licensees and agencies to comply with audits, and to some this gives the FPB the appearance of having no teeth. But this has been a strength of the board in that it has helped it to stay at arm’s length from government control and has empowered its real sphere of influence, communicating directly with the public. Every report that the board has ever published is available on its multi-platform website and nothing is vetoed by government. Other important strengths are the respect earned through the expertise of its staff; plus board members overseeing the finalization of key FPB reports often add board commentaries through which the board can stretch its mandate in ways that can be helpful to shaping public policy.
B.C.’s legendary forest conflicts of the 1980s and ’90s are behind us, and today B.C. is a world-leader in sustainable forest management and environmentally-certified forest products. There are still significant forestry concerns, as a scan through board reports of the last five years will attest; but today’s main resource issues turn on oil, gas, mining, and energy, with their cumulative environmental impacts and related transportation and transmission footprints.
It is time to capitalize on the unique history and potential that is B.C.’s Forest Practices Board: for a relatively small incremental cost, the FPB’s expertise could be leveraged to create a Natural Resource Practices Board to serve as a watchdog for the wider natural resource sector. At least one non-government organization, the BC Wildlife Federation thinks so and has lobbied to that effect in the aftermath of the environmental disaster at the Mount Polley mine. I think it’s fair to say that the forest industry has found the work of the FPB helpful in maintaining its social licence and market standing with little added cost to the bottom line or to the public purse. It’s likely, therefore, that other resource sectors and the resource owners (public) would similarly benefit from a Natural Resource Practices Board.
Mike Nash lives in Prince George and is a former board member with B.C.’s Forest Practices Board (2008-2014).