BC’s Chief Forester Diane Nicholls (third from right) attended a wood pellet trade show back in 2019. After supporting the industry’s controversial growth in BC, she recently left the ministry of forests for a job with the UK company that now dominates the new industry in BC.
AROUND THE SAME TIME as the Chief Forester’s Office was editing a report to remove evidence that would question the maladaptation and risks of deciduous suppression, it was providing false reassurances to then minister of forests Doug Donaldson regarding the safety of glyphosate products.
In a December 16, 2019 briefing note written by Shawn Hedges of the Chief Forester’s Office, a document reviewed and initialed by Chief Forester Diane Nicholls and Deputy Chief Forester Shane Berg, Donaldson was told that: “The effects of glyphosate on human health have been extensively reviewed by international regulatory agencies, including Health Canada, with the conclusion generally being that exposure to glyphosate does not pose a carcinogenic or genotoxic risk to humans.”
There is little evidence to support this statement.
Health Canada, like other major regulatory agencies, has relied overwhelmingly on industry-written studies, few of which adequately analyzed the actual commercial formulations of glyphosate. Studies have shown these formulations of proprietary and unidentified ingredients to be more toxic than just the “active” ingredient of glyphosate itself.
Based on this information, in 2015 the International Agency for Research on Cancer described glyphosate as a “probable carcinogen” well before the CFO wrote their briefing note. Extensive research and discoveries since then, including evidence in 2018 showing industry systematically misrepresented their science to regulatory agencies, has further supported this determination.
More significantly, recent studies from northern BC have shown vegetation and berries to contain on average 0.79 parts per million of glyphosate contamination 1 year after application. Yet 0.1 parts per million is the maximum residue level allowed for non-designated food in Canada. The Chief Forester’s Office was aware that people may eat berries with far higher glyphosate levels than is legally allowed in stores at the time it reassured then Minister Donaldson there was no risk.
While our understanding of the risks around glyphosate formulations continues to expand in recent years, the Chief Forester's Office has stuck to its guns.
On March 31 of this year, Forest Minister Katrine Conroy, standing in Oral Question Period in response to yet more public outrage about a plan for forestry herbicide spraying, made the almost identical, outdated claim made by staff in the Office of the Chief Forester. She said: “The effects of glyphosate on human health has been really extensively reviewed by international regulatory agencies, including Health Canada, with the conclusion being that exposure to glyphosate does not pose a carcinogenic or general toxic risk to humans.”
Several days later, on April 5, Green Party member Adam Olsen raised a question of privilege in the BC legislature, calling this misleading statement “a grave and serious breach” of public trust. He pointed out that glyphosate safety had not been conclusively proven and provided evidence to support his claim.
The question of privilege is probably misdirected. The origin of Conroy’s statement can be found in a briefing note the Chief Forester’s Office wrote. Like the broader public, Conroy simply had the misfortune of trusting that the Chief Forester’s Office would provide advice that considered the public interest as opposed to the interests and claims of industry.
Allowable Annual Cut Determinations
It may be possible for the Chief Forester’s Office to gloss over and hide the cracks in the logic and assumptions of sustainable forest management with words and expensive reports, but the reality on the landscape tells the truth.
Fred Marshall, a forester in the Boundary/Kettle River area, who manages a woodlot, points to the heavily clearcut landscapes of southern BC north of Grand Forks as evidence that the CFO’s maximization of the Allowable Annual Cut (AAC) can no longer be sustained on the landbase.
Fred Marshall walks through a clearcut in the Boundary area (Louis Bockner/The Narwhal)
“I have serious issues with several of the timber supply review determinations of AAC that Nicholls has signed off on,” Marshall wrote to me. “Many are not in the best public interest, but in the forest industry’s interests.”
In 2018, wind storms and floods on the Kettle River caused hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of damage in the Boundary area that over-cutting greatly exacerbated.
A BC government 2021 cumulative effects report on the drainage titled “Analysis of the Kettle River Watershed: Streamflow and Sedimentation Hazards” showed massive disturbance of the watershed from logging, with 30-40 percent of the Central Kettle River drainage deforested. The West Kettle River was considered 20-30 percent deforested, meaning 20-30 percent of the land base exhibited features of a clearcut and had not regenerated to a point where forest-like characteristics existed.
The government calls this deforestation the “equivalent clearcut area.” Watersheds with an equivalent clearcut area of 30 percent are considered to be at high risk of flooding during spring melt or heavy rainfall events. Watersheds with 20 percent have a medium risk. Without forest cover, rainfall is not as effectively absorbed. Factor in the more intense rain storms occurring as a result of climate change, and the probability of floods increases.
In an article for The Narwhal written by Judith Lavoie, watershed geoscientist and hydrologist Kim Green said “without question, the removal of forests both increases the frequency of landslides and frequency of flooding…You take off the trees, you end up with more water in your soil and you get those slides.”
Following the flood, a 2020 forests ministry report, “Watershed Assessments in the Kootenay-Boundary Region”, determined that a significant portion of the Kettle Valley drainages sampled “were found to be not properly functioning,” mostly due to flood damage, which was indirectly impacted by over-cutting.
Politicians have long known about over-cutting of the Kettle River drainage and the need to prepare for climate change. In 2017, then forests minister Doug Donaldson wrote a letter to Diane Nicholls directing that her upcoming timber supply review determinations of AAC for the area “should incorporate the best available information on climate change and the cumulative effects of multiple activities on the land base.”
Yet in her February, 2022 timber supply review for TFL 8—a large tract of land in the watershed that Interfor logs—Nicholls did not incorporate climate change or cumulative effects into the determination. Instead, she wrote: “Without knowing what the magnitude or management responses to climate change will be, I have not accounted for them in this AAC determination.”
Nicholls did reduce the AAC by 14.8 percent, maintaining 85 percent of the annual clearcutting in a large part of the already devastated watershed. But she also increased the percentage of logging on steep-sloped areas (“steep” meaning more than a 45 percent grade) due to her concern that “full utilization of the AAC without adequate performance in steep-slope areas will result in an over-harvest in areas with lower slope.” Her determination required 17 percent of the projected logging to come from steep-slope areas. That was 17 times more than the 1 percent of the AAC that was allowed on steep slopes in the prior 10 years.
“I think that 17 percent steep-slope logging should be taken right out of the AAC. It shouldn’t be cut. It’s too risky,” says Marshall. “And, I believe that the AAC should be reduced another 17 percent to allow for climate change effects and cumulative impacts on the landscape. This would then mean a reduction in the AAC of around 50 percent—which is much more appropriate.”
Map from the 2021 Cumulative Effects Report showing 30-40% Equivalent Clearcut Area for the Central Kettle River drainage, and 20-30% ECA in the West Kettle River drainage
“Half of the TFL watershed was not properly functioning because of logging, yet Nicholls made no reduction in the AAC for that even though she must consider the status of the forest in all timber supply review determinations,” Marshall says. “Well the forest is all degraded and yet she made no deductions for this degraded state in this timber supply review. To the contrary, she dramatically increased the amount of steep-sloped logging that will be required.”
The industry to ministry to industry revolving door
An explanation of this prioritization of logging at the expense of other values is perhaps found in a story that has made waves recently: Diane Nicholls’ jump from BC’s chief forester to a senior executive position at Drax, a large bioenergy company based in the United Kingdom with partial or full control of half the wood pellet plant operations in British Columbia.
In an article for The Tyee, Ben Parfitt reported that prior to taking this position, Nicholls promoted the very industry that will now employ her, including appearing in promotional videos.
As chief forester of BC, Nicholls appeared in a 2020 Canadian Wood Pellet Association video promoting the wood pellet industry.
Appearing in a video produced by the Canadian Wood Pellet Association, Nicholls portrayed the growth of the industry as a good thing because it would utilize waste produced by logging that wouldn’t “necessarily” be used. But in office, Nicholls made AAC determinations that allowed additional logging of whole trees (mostly deciduous) for pellets, above and beyond the supposedly sustainable AAC. This was done to help the pellet industry, which is dominated by Drax—where Nicholls now works.
The wood pellet industry’s claim that it is a “climate solution” has been widely debunked by scientists. A 2020 letter from 200 forest and climate scientists to American legislators noted that “[T]he scientific evidence does not support the burning of wood in place of fossil fuels as a climate solution. Current science finds that burning trees for energy produces even more carbon dioxide than burning coal, for equal electricity produced.”
Yet Nicholls placed the Chief Forester’s Office prestigious stamp of approval on the Canadian Wood Pellet Association’s dubious claims. At what price?
The delusional hope that industry promoters will somehow transform themselves into effective regulators that look out for the public interest is a longstanding condition at the ministry of forests. Since the 1970s, leadership of the ministry and industry has been interchangeable. Examples of this revolving door include Mike Apsey becoming the deputy minister of forests in 1984, after working for major forestry companies and their lobby group, the Council of Forest Industries (COFI), and then returning to COFI as its president and CEO. Another example would be former deputy minister of forests, John Allan, who afterwards became a long-term president and CEO of COFI before returning to the forests ministry, again as deputy minister.
Historically, the chief forester came from the public service, not industry. This changed with Diane Nicholls, who was the first chief forester since the Second World War who did not have a career background of rising—on merit—through the ranks of the public service within the forests ministry. Instead, she came to the ministry from industry: Island Timberlands, MacMillan Bloedel and Weyerhaeuser.
In other words, Nicholls had no field experience in inventory and management with the forests ministry, and much experience serving private corporate interests.
Perhaps reflecting her greater comfort with industry, Nicholls was responsible for another first: the Chief Forester’s Leadership Team, a group that included only the top corporate foresters from major forestry corporations in the province.
Nicholls’ team conducted meetings and excursions where the interests of industry were discussed, but little of these discussions is known. We got a hint of what they discussed, though, in an October 2016 Forest Professional magazine article by team member Chris Stagg. According to Stagg, “the team looked at two timber supply areas as pilots and discussed various ways of ensuring the full AAC could be realized. I believe this was a very constructive exercise.”
The leadership team meetings provided Nicholls with numerous opportunities to reassure the corporate sector that she would fight for their interests. The record shows she worked to maximize logging at the cost of the public interest.
Nicholls’ apparent blurring of the line between government and industry has not (publicly) been deemed to have violated conflict of interest rules or crossed over into outright corruption. Nevertheless, it should be apparent in the examples described above that an important public office has favoured private interests over those of the public, with possible expectations of corporate favour and employment in return. There is, to say the least, the appearance that something corrupt may have occurred.
It is unclear how much longer the façade of “sustainability” can hold up. BC’s forests are rapidly deteriorating and the impacts of climate change—including forest fires, forest health and floods—are already upon us. The assumption that what is good for the industry is good for the public no longer holds water as over-cutting and stand replacement with vulnerable, flammable, industrial tree farms speeds up.
With Nicholls’ departure, Minister Conroy should take the opportunity to recognize this hard truth: Industry’s desire for maximum timber supply and the public’s desire for functional, resilient forests are no longer one and the same thing. It’s time for the institution of the Chief Forester’s Office to get back to what it’s there for: serving the public good.
James Steidle grew up south of Prince George in the bush and worked as a tree planter for 3 years and in Clear Lake Sawmills for 4 years. He currently runs a woodworking company and works with aspen wherever he can. He is a founder of Stop the Spray B.C.