Let’s Take a Deep Breath About the Old Growth Technical Panel

By Christine Gelowitz, RPF

Staff of Forest Professionals BC (FPBC) have received a range of concerns from registrants in recent weeks about the individuals appointed to the provincial government’s old growth technical panel. These concerns range from questions about the qualification of the panel members to the requirement for anyone advising government in this capacity to be a forest professional. Others have expressed concern about registrants who are critical of the government’s selection of candidates. In each of these cases, there is an expectation that FPBC will intervene in the matter, either through challenging government or confronting registrants who choose to openly challenge government.

Some perspective is needed.

First, the role of FPBC under the Professional Governance Act (PGA) is to ensure that only competent, registered forest professionals practice professional forestry. These registrants (forest professionals) are accountable to the public through FPBC Bylaws and the Code of Ethical and Professional Conduct. This does not mean that FPBC governs the opinions of forest professionals or their freedom to express different viewpoints publicly. All FPBC registrants must carefully consider how they express these views in the public realm. However, it would be a disservice to the public interest if all open discussion about forest management was stifled by accusations of unethical conduct. Forest professionals can and should participate in robust, public dialogue about how public forests are managed because they have relevant knowledge and expertise.

Second, the government is entitled to choose its advisors on matters of public policy. In combination, aspects of the old growth panel work is anticipated to include reserved forestry practice, which only FPBC registrants are authorized to undertake. In that regard, two FPBC registrants are included as members of the old growth panel appointed by the government, as well as other qualified non-registrants. The PGA does not prevent such an occurrence, but, In fact, reinforces the ability for registrants of different professions to apply their knowledge to overlapping areas of science.

FPBC is also aware that the panel is supported by FPBC registrants who work for the provincial government. FPBC enforces the boundaries of reserved forest practice under the Forest Professionals Regulation when there is clear evidence of infringement. This includes misuse of the protected titles or evidence that a non-registrant is doing work that only a registrant of FPBC is authorized to complete. FPBC does not believe there is evidence of practice infringement relative to the old growth panel based on currently available information.

Last, these are challenging and polarizing times in the forest and natural resource sector. The public eye has been focused on old growth protests on Vancouver Island, stirring debates that we haven’t witnessed in almost 30 years. The BC Interior has experienced yet another devastating wildfire season, generating public fear of the potential for loss of life, home, and livelihood. Steps are being taken towards shared decision-making with Indigenous Peoples and the implementation of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, which is positive and progressive, and also represents unknown, complex change. And pending forest policy changes have people wondering about the security of jobs in many rural communities.

Despite these pressures and worries, and regardless of personal views about the management of public forests, forest professionals have to step back and re-examine the public interest at this pivotal time in history. Silent forest professionals will not benefit the public. FPBC registrants need to be engaged because they are knowledgeable and can inform the discussion. And while personal opinions of forest professionals can also help shape the dialogue and direction along with their scientific knowledge and expertise, they must always remain cognizant that determining the outcome about how BC forests will be used or managed is the role of governments in fulfilling their responsibility to interpret and respond to the desires of society. And rather than speaking out to target each other’s views or ethics, forest professionals are better served to seek to understand what the owner of the resource wants from and for their forest, and help them achieve that through the sharing and application of their expertise and competency.

The diverse, informed voices of forest professionals are integral to developing sustainable long-term solutions in forest management. Despite the challenges speaking out can present, I encourage you to find meaningful ways to wade into or lead discussions, to not get caught up in opinion-based rhetoric, but rather bring data and knowledge into discussions that focus on shared solutions to best meet the evolving public and First Nations interests.

Christine Gelowitz, RPF, is the chief executive officer of Forest Professionals BC, a role she has held since 2016.