Comment: Forester pays high price for doing honest job

The implications of not accounting accurately and conservatively for estimations of timber directly affect more than 140 forest-dependent communities and the forest industry, both of whom rely on B.C.’s chief forester to set sustainable rates of logging on Crown land.

In a case that has some eerie parallels with the wrongful firings of health-care professionals a few years ago, Martin Watts, a professional forester and once frequently used and respected consultant, is finding out just how high a price people sometimes pay for doing their jobs well with professional integrity.

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Watts works in the somewhat esoteric but vitally important world of modelling forest timber and carbon, and in the management and analysis of forestry data. He specializes in working with the sophisticated models that are used by our government to decide on how intensively our publicly owned forests are logged.

The trouble is that Watts frequently saw gaping holes in those data and models, and he said as much. For that, he eventually found himself blacklisted — cut out of all opportunities for contract work for a government that had once been only too happy to employ him.

Watts filed a civil claim against the provincial government in B.C. Supreme Court. On May 11, Master Carolyn Bouck heard the respective legal arguments as to whether or not Watts’ lawsuit should be dismissed. She concluded the hearing by saying that she would make a decision by the end of June.

As a former civil servant who served 40 years for the forests ministry in several senior positions, I believe the challenges that Watts bravely raised at considerable personal cost are issues that each and every one of us should pay heed to, because nothing less than the sound management of our publicly owned forests is at stake.

The decisions we make today about how our forests are managed will have ramifications not only for us, but for future generations. If those decisions aren’t grounded in good, sound data, analysis and modelling, we are all in trouble.

From a narrow perspective, Watts’ claim in the lawsuit deals with false accusations of unauthorized use of data received while under contract; denial of access to public data; denigration of professional reputation; and blacklisting.

From the broad perspective of the public interest, Watts makes some alarming allegations about the state of forestry data and models used by the forests ministry and the forest industry to inform decisions on the rate of logging in provincial forests.

The lawsuit has enormous implications for the credibility of the government’s claims of setting sustainable rates of logging and of achieving carbon neutrality through the planting of trees publicly funded by the newly created Forest Enhancement Society and through the purchase of forest carbon offsets with public funds, such as those from the Great Bear Forest Carbon Project.

By extension, many of Watts’ allegations mean that the forests ministry and the Climate Action Secretariat:

• Rely on the pre-approval, with no internal validation, of forest carbon models in the B.C. Forest Carbon Offsets Protocol;

• Rely on an unvalidated computer model, calibrated with out-of-date, incorrectly compiled and corrupted forest-growth data to predict the growth of natural forests;

• Rely on the improper use of statistics to validate the computer model used to predict the growth of forest plantations; and,

• Fail to account for uncertainty associated with not incorporating the effects of climate change into the computer models, particularly in the area of forest health.

The B.C. government’s claim of achieving carbon neutrality, primarily through the purchase of forest carbon offsets with public funds, is questionable.

As an example, the biomass conversion errors that Watts identified in 2008 in the federal forest carbon-budget model used by the province were not corrected until 2016.

Even if Master Bouck decides to dismiss the lawsuit at the end of June for legal reasons, the forestry-related allegations and facts put forth by Watts are still valid and should not be ignored, as demonstrated by the recent request by government’s Cariboo Regional District and West Fraser for a review of the chief forester’s allowable annual cut determination for the 100 Mile House timber supply area and, possibly, for the Williams Lake and Quesnel timber-supply areas.

Whatever the outcome of Watts’ dispute with the government, the public interest in this lawsuit would be served best if B.C.’s auditor general conducted an audit of the uncertainty and material errors that are not accounted for in the chief forester’s timber-supply review process.

 

Anthony Britneff, a retired registered professional forester, had a 40-year career with the B.C. Forest Service during which he held senior professional positions.

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