Stewart Muir: How the insider moves of a narrow interest group snookered provincial cabinet, MLAs, citizens, and the broad forestry community.
Stewart Muir, Resource Works founder.
Old growth has fueled a British Columbia policy debate for decades, and one thing the BC NDP did after making a deal with the BC Greens to take power in 2017 was initiate a review process. The resulting report – “A New Future for Old Forests: A Strategic Review of How British Columbia Manages for Old Forests Within its Ancient Ecosystems” (which I’ll call the Gorley-Merkel report), submitted by its authors Al Gorley RPF and Gary Merkel RPF in the spring of 2020 but not unveiled until last fall, called for a “paradigm shift” to protect old growth forests.
Said the report’s authors: “We advise that this be developed in collaboration with Indigenous governments, and in consultation with many others. We hope this approach provides an avenue to simultaneously build good policy and practices, a stable timber industry as well as public trust.” Shortly after, Premier John Horgan won an unalloyed grip on power for the BC NDP, with one of his promises being that all recommendations of the report would be implemented.
After an initial round of deferrals and legislation protecting big trees in Fall 2020, the next major step was an intentions paper released on June 1, 2021 setting out the government’s vision “for a forest sector that is diverse, competitive, and focused on sustainability.” It explicitly promised to “engage and consult with Indigenous peoples and engage with local governments, the forest industry, labour and other interest groups over the next many months.”
Three weeks later, the Horgan government announced the Old Growth Technical Advisory Panel (OGTAP) that would advise on two-year forest conservation deferrals across the province. Right from the start, it was obvious that something unusual was brewing.
Four months later, OGTAP delivered a report that was immediately implemented in full and with devastating impact. The forest sector estimated it could mean the loss of up to 18,000 jobs and the closure of as many as 20 sawmills and two pulp and paper mills. Despite the stated intention, what quickly became clear is that the Horgan government had capitulated its forest policy direction to the loud voices of the forces of ‘No’, to the near total exclusion of others.
OGTAP was a joint project of environment minister George Heyman and forest minister Katrine Conroy. However, government correspondence released through a freedom of information request shows that the project was designed and managed by Heyman, who before becoming an MLA was the executive director of Sierra Club BC. By an astonishing coincidence, four of the five appointees to OGTAP had ties to the very same organization. Only one of the five panel appointees, professional forester Garry Merkel, could be described as independent.
George Heyman, BC environment minister. Photo from Business in Vancouver.
Given the consequences of OGTAP’s work conducted with public funds, it must be pointed out that among the Sierra Club-linked members of the panel were two individuals who are married to one other and shared one email address in their dealings with the government. Three of the appointees were the authors of an old-growth study hosted on the Sierra Club website and relentlessly promoted by that pressure group. Furthermore, the Sierra Club provided the mapping talent for that study.
It’s not difficult to imagine the cacophony if this body was 80% made up of delegates from a single large forest company or industry association.
This leverage meant that the outcome of the panel was determined before any work was done or any evidence considered. Sierra Club BC had already expended great energies framing the old growth issue for the BC public as a zero sum game – you could choose ancient trees or jobs, but only bad people would choose jobs. For nearly a year to the time of the panel being struck, the lobby group had assumed a high profile, steering a classic sturm und drang campaign on old growth consisting of media-friendly stunts at Fairy Creek paired with a swarm of lobbying in Victoria’s halls of power. Its reward for this work was, evidently, the right to decide the very fate of an industry that represents 18 per cent of British Columbia’s base economy.
Should we be concerned when a minister appoints four people with ties to his former employer to a five-person panel charged with considering the broad future of the province’s largest goods export sector? I suppose that’s a value judgment. It could also be a concern that the idea of a “technical” panel is stretched when one of those appointees is not a technical expert but rather a political one, and that this person quickly becomes the dominant voice on the panel in terms of relations with the bureaucrats supporting the panel’s work. Yet this accurately describes Lisa Matthaus. Vancouver Sun legislature columnist Vaughn Palmer noted that Matthaus was active in the past in the Sierra Club’s fight against logging old-growth. In 2021, her formal role was as the provincial lead of Organizing for Change, which is a project of MakeWay, the new name of a long-existing group, Tides Canada, that rebranded itself after complaining its anti-everything goals had been misunderstood.
One of OGTAP’s Sierra Club connections is a report, claimed to have been written on a “voluntary” basis according to its authors, that started the oft-repeated claim that only 3 per cent of BC old growth remains. Independent studies – ignored by the panel, naturally – show that the claim turns out to be worth exactly what was paid for it. For example, the new Status of BC’s Old Forests: The Situation in 2021 study by ForSite – pointedly ignored by OGTAP – found that over 3.3 million ha of old forests, or about 30 per cent, are growing on high productivity sites capable of producing big trees. An ongoing mapping analysis we undertook at Resource Works found about 19.2 million hectares of old growth in BC, almost a third of our total, 57 million ha forested landbase. About 6.9 million hectares or 36 per cent of that is protected – again, a far cry from 3 per cent.
Prior to OGTAP’s launch, it was already clear the panel would define itself in terms demanded by anti-forestry pressure groups. A memorandum to the Forests minister, Katrine Conroy, cited only one “challenge/opportunity” that would need to be managed: addressing concerns of “environmental non-governmental organizations and activists” that policy changes were not moving fast enough. Answering the question, “How will we measure success?”, the same memo itemized the following performance metrics: “amount and tone of news coverage; validating statements from Indigenous Nations and ENGOs; and increased public understanding of government’s efforts to better manage old growth.”
Well aware of Matthaus’ credentials deficit and bias, Minister Heyman personally wordsmithed the panel creation language, correcting staff who had termed the panel members “five respected scientists”, accurately substituting a description of the campaigner as “a representative of several (or a coalition of) environmental organizations.” Officials in the environment ministry acknowledged that the panel “does not include the full range of views that would be needed for decision making” - and that it would deliberately ignore “implications for industry; local community interest; First Nations interests and Indigenous knowledge.”
Correspondence reveals Matthaus had a tight personal relationship with Heyman, and was not shy about asking a senior bureaucrat to take a meeting with her in the form of “a walk.” She also functioned to coordinate external flanking efforts such as an economic study from the Ancient Forest Alliance on the topic of the value of protecting old growth. That included providing specific communications advice to senior bureaucrats on what to say in support of the report, which touted “forest products like floral greenery” as an alternative to logging.
Some "floral greenery".
As the terms of reference were composed, one early draft acknowledged uncertainty and the many questions that exist over data quality, making the following reference to the criteria that would drive deferrals: “Some of the criteria cannot be easily mapped and may be open to different interpretations.” This line was struck out in a later draft.
Part of the paradigm shift, as that term was interpreted by OGTAP, was to marginalize the authority of professional foresters and replace it with that of ecologists. The Sierra Club panel members insisted that their professional advice remain “unchallenged”, which included putting distance between them and what the government had announced some months before by way of an initial round of harvest deferrals.
From the very beginning, a tight coterie of anti-forestry groups was brought into the loop while all other interested parties were excluded. Cordial invitations were sent to the Sierra Club, Stand.Earth, the Wilderness Committee, the Ancient Forest Alliance, and to panel member Lisa Matthaus in her dual role as an employee of Organizing for Change (OFC), which had been paid $25,000 by its parent group MakeWay to push anti-logging messages. (My organization Resource Works, despite its extensive research on forest policy, was never contacted by anyone in the provincial government in regards to the project.)
As the panel’s launch date neared, on June 24 senior bureaucrats and the environment minister were invited to throw themselves under their own bus when they were provided with the Sierra Club’s statement on the panel as “a turning point for the fate of at-risk old-growth forests amid a delayed implementation of the promised paradigm-shift in forest stewardship in BC.” The panel would need commitment for this terrible mistake to be rectified: “Overcoming this government’s history of ignoring the best-available science and playing politics with advisory boards will require political will and clear direction.”
In the end, the government skated right past the blatant conflict of interest, with its news release thanking what it drily called a “panel of independent scientific and ecological experts”.
The influence of MakeWay included a dense four-page issue note in July 2021 about the “dire circumstances” facing old growth, insisting without providing evidence that the general public shared ENGO “disillusionment” about the pace of earlier implementation of the Gorley-Merkel report. The memo set out terms of the desired paradigm shift: “...BC’s forest are still managed primarily for timber. It is an outdated industrial paradigm that is no longer delivering on our social, economic or ecological values... This paradigm shift must parallel and ultimately converge with the other, necessary paradigm shift with the recent Intentions Paper on Modernizing BC Forestry that will see more First Nations tenures and a greater role for value added processing in BC.”
Around the same time, internal concerns about Matthaus’ obvious conflict of interest were already reaching Minister Heyman. An ADM from Environment advised on July 19 that “the role of Lisa for OFC and OGTAP does complicate things but there doesn’t appear to be a better approach.” The same memo also flagged a second conflict of interest on Matthaus’s part which was that she had a “role in two separate processes” - the old growth panel and ongoing discussions about the Great Bear Rainforest.
If the scientific case for deferrals was so strong, why rely on a cooked process? Environmental politics have always been complicated stuff in B.C. A conventional political calculation would lean away from allowing the impression to be created that a minister with Heyman’s close personal ties had put his thumb – along with hands, feet and kitchen sink – on the scale.
The process so far looks to be disastrous. First Nations that drew initial hope from the intentions paper quickly realized when the OGTAP decision was announced what had been done. One chief told me: “This whole thing cuts us all out at the knees,” noting that promises were made of a generous slice of tenure being handed to First Nations without revealing that before this happened, the annual allowable cut would be slashed severely on the advice of OGTAP.
With everyone from the typically left-of-centre, ENGO-friendly Union of BC Indian Chiefs to the nuanced BC First Nations Forestry Council attacking the outcome, there is no way the panel can be said to have delivered on its stated performance metrics. Even environmental groups harshly criticized the government. I’m hearing almost every day about mills that are independently coming to the realization they are doomed. Value-added manufacturing won’t survive without access to mature logs.
No allowance has been made for the fact that, when held up to inspection, the deferral areas are riddled with inaccuracies. It appears that some deferrals have been geographically situated to block access to harvestable areas that aren’t even on the deferrals list. For First Nations that in some cases have been negotiating treaties for decades, it rankled to be handed a 30-day deadline to accept the deferrals.
The promise to “engage and consult with Indigenous peoples and engage with local governments, the forest industry, labour and other interest groups over the next many months”? Never happened, unless you count the Sierra Club and its allies.
Modernization this is not. The outcome represents anti-forest campaign strategists literally being handed the helm by government to go in for the kill.
Forest companies aren’t Neanderthals in this story. Transition is happening but not fast enough for everyone. On Vancouver Island, 46 per cent of Crown land is old growth. If harvesting is banned there, the industry will then have to focus on very limited newer forests that, until such time as they mature, are incapable of supporting the level of harvesting we have today. This helps to explain why mills that aren’t equipped to process second growth logs will close.
Premier Horgan has been a voice of reason and empathy in the recent forest conflict. He repeatedly called on Fairy Creek protest groups to withdraw as requested by the local Pacheedaht First Nation. In recent times, he was obliged to run without the close presence of two legends of pragmatic forest policy, John Allan and Don Wright, both of whom retired from their government posts in the period that the anti-logging pressures grew and Sierra Club BC’s influence rose to a truly overwhelming level.
In the end, it is plain to see that the insider moves of a narrow interest group snookered provincial cabinet, MLAs, citizens, and the broad forestry community. I truly wish I could state that those in charge of things are concerned about the economic and community carnage ahead. After the OGTAP report was unveiled, the forest minister was pressed in the BC Legislature to show any economic impact study about the effects of the decision. She had nothing to offer. It’s obvious that the social costs could run into the billions, not to mention a massive shortfall in government revenues that will have to be offset by higher taxes, more borrowing or fewer public services. I doubt that British Columbians realized this was the paradigm shift that had been promised. If there is hope for a balanced outcome, First Nations remain the most likely source of progress - an enormous responsibility and one that is being placed on the shoulders of individual Indigenous leaders in difficult jobs the daily burdens of which were already immense.
Stewart Muir is an investigative journalist and founder of Vancouver-based Resource Works Society.
This article was first published in The Forestry Chronicle, a publication of the Canadian Institute of Forestry that provides information to forest practitioners about professional and scientific management of forests and their resources.