In 2003, an employee of the ministry of forests offered confidentiality agreements to TFL holders ensuring that mapping of the timber harvesting land base in those TFLs would not be released to the public. Whether or not it was the original purpose of the confidentiality agreements, they seem to have had the effect of thwarting designation of legal, spatially-designated old-growth management areas in the majority of the TFLs that were offered confidentiality.
Western Forest Products’ surveyors work in an area of old-growth forest in TFL 19 near Tahsis on Vancouver Island. TFL 19 contains zero legal old-growth management areas. Across BC, there are over 3 million hectares of land spread across 22 TFLs where logging companies have evaded establishing spatially-designated old-growth management areas. (Photo: TJ Watt)
THE FIRST PART OF AN INQUIRY conducted by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of BC (OIPC) recently received written submissions from the Ministry of Forests, three of the affected logging companies and the Discovery Islands Forest Conservation Project. The inquiry was held to consider a simple question: Is the right of the public to access maps of the “timber harvesting land base” (THLB) on publicly owned land in tree farm licences outweighed by the private interests of logging companies currently holding those tree farm licences?
The logging companies provided written submissions strenuously objecting to release of the maps on the basis that making them public could fuel civil disobedience, cause disruption of their operations, bring financial loss, damage their “negotiating position” and unduly benefit their competitors.
A lawyer for Interfor wrote: “For example, the information could be used to create a narrative regarding timber harvesting plans and modelling based on the THLB information released, with the goal rallying a cause, fuelling civil disobedience, and creating operational disruptions.”
Teal Cedar Products stated: “Significant financial harm would result if the data were released to the [Applicant] whereby the [Applicant] uses the data in a manner that would disrupt Teal’s operations by protests, road blocks, or other social media campaigns…In this case, if the data were released, it would result in financial loss to Teal as operations could not proceed as planned due to road blockades and protests…”
Western Forest Products’ lawyers felt so strongly that release of the maps would cause harm to the company that they didn’t even want their arguments to be publicly known—so they redacted them from their submission. Only the inquiry’s adjudicator will ever know what Western claimed would happen if “the data were released”.
What is it about the mapping of the timber harvesting land base on publicly owned land in a tree farm licence (TFL) that is so hot that Western Forest Products doesn’t even want the public to know its arguments for why the mapping should be kept secret?
As a tool for igniting blockades of logging roads, using maps of the timber harvesting land base would be something like trying to start a fire with a water hose. Most British Columbians don’t even know what the “timber harvesting land base” is or the critical role it plays in determining how much logging occurs in BC. Land defenders, largely motivated to protect big, old trees, use more direct tools—like day-old satellite imagery showing where logging roads are being built—in their efforts to slow down destruction of old-growth forests.
But the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner will likely take seriously the overblown speculations of the logging companies and rule in favour of not releasing the maps of the timber harvesting land base on the basis that doing so would be harmful to the business interests of the logging companies. Our project submitted an argument based on Section 25 1(b) of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, namely that it would be “clearly in the public interest” to release the maps. However, in the 30 years since this legislation was enacted, there has never been an OIPC adjudication that ordered a public body to release a record on the grounds that it would be “clearly in the public interest” to do so.
The OIPC inquiry did, however, unearth a document that sheds light on how the Ministry of Forests has managed to hide these maps from the public. The ministry submitted to the inquiry a letter that had been written in August 2003 in which an employee of the Ministry of Forests’ tenure and revenue branch asked each of the 22 TFL holders affected by the Forestry Revitalization Act (2003) for maps of its timber harvesting land base.
In exchange for these maps, the employee offered confidentiality agreements in which the ministry promised not to disclose the maps to any third party. According to the ministry’s submission to the inquiry, all of the TFL holders provided the requested maps to the ministry. Only two of the TFL holders—TimberWest and Canadian Forest Products—actually requested confidentiality agreements, but the ministry claimed at the inquiry that the letter itself was an implicit promise of confidentiality to all of the TFL holders.
The letter stated: “The information provided will be considered single purpose data and will be held in confidence.” This appears to mean that the mapping would be used for the purpose of taking back volume from the TFLs as set out under the Forestry Revitalization Act, but it couldn’t be used for any other purpose—like, for example, establishing old growth management areas. More on this later.
Those confidentiality agreements, both explicit and implied, have had the effect of keeping the mapping of the timber harvesting land base in TFLs hidden from public view for over 20 years.
Yet that mapping is information that section 9 of the Forest Act requires TFL holders to “prepare and supply”—at the TFL holders expense—and which they must provide “at the time and in the form and manner required by the chief forester”. Indeed, if it isn’t prepared and supplied when requested, the chief forester can reduce the TFL’s allowable annual cut by 25 percent until it is supplied. That’s because the mapping is essential for an allowable annual cut determination.
In its submission to the inquiry, the Ministry of Forests admitted that the “TFLs create this data as a condition of their TFL to enable the Province’s Chief Forester to determine an allowable annual cut”. But the ministry made no reference to the Forest Act’s stipulation that the TFL holder must “prepare and supply” the data to the chief forester.
Moreover, the 2003 Forestry Revitalization Act itself, the pending implementation of which precipitated the promises of confidentiality in the first place, contained a similar command to TFL holders to provide any information that was required to implement the Act’s provisions.
All of this goes to show that confidentiality agreements were not required to obtain maps of each affected TFL’s timber harvesting land base. Preparing and supplying the maps was a condition of their licences.
The Ministry of Forests’ submission to the inquiry shows that 10 years later, in 2013, the ministry repeated the whole exercise of requesting the timber harvesting land base from TFL holders and promising not to share that mapping with the public. In this case, too, the ministry ignored the provisions of the Forest Act that empower the chief forester to demand that maps of the timber harvesting land base be prepared and supplied at the TFL holder’s expense.
The Ministry of Forests provided no explanation at the inquiry for why it had ignored the provisions of the Forest Act and the Forestry Revitalization Act when it came to obtaining information from TFL holders. But two motivations for the ministry’s chosen course of action to keep these maps out of the public’s hands are apparent.
First, from what I have seen of mapping of the timber harvesting land base, it is very crude and that crudeness would introduce significant uncertainty into the main product that is derived from mapping the timber harvesting land base: allowable annual cut determinations. By hiding this problem behind confidentiality agreements, the ministry has kept that uncertainty out of public sight.
Secondly, by hiding this critically important mapping behind serial confidentiality agreements, the ministry was pursuing a strategy it had quietly developed in 2003: To undertake measures that would minimize the actual impact on timber supply from highly-publicized conservation initiatives such as the establishment of legal old-growth management areas. The ministry wanted to look good without actually being good.
Below, I’ll examine in detail some of the real-world impacts of the crude mapping and the ministry’s desire to look good to the public.
A crudely mapped timber harvesting land base would likely lead to over-cutting
Let’s consider, first, the impact of a crudely mapped timber harvesting land base and why the ministry would want to hide that behind confidentiality agreements.
As I mentioned above, even those British Columbians who are concerned about what’s happening to their forests likely don’t have a clear idea of what the “timber harvesting land base” is and why its areal extent is so critical to the rate at which BC’s forests are being logged. The term is defined by the ministry as “Crown forest land within the timber supply area where timber harvesting is considered both acceptable and economically feasible, given objectives for all relevant forest values, existing timber quality, market values, and applicable technology.”
Why is the timber harvesting land base critically important? There is a direct connection between the timber harvesting land base and the allowable annual cut. The allowable annual cut of a TFL is determined, in effect, by multiplying the areal extent of the timber harvesting land base by the average rate of annual forest growth on that area. That areal extent can only be ascertained from an accurate map of the timber harvesting land base. An accurate map would show areas that are too steep or unstable to log or build roads, areas of unproductive or non-commercial forest, areas of rock, swamps, creeks, lakes, roads, and so on.
From the mapping that has been released to us so far (some TFL holders voluntarily released their maps in response to the inquiry), it’s clear that in many TFLs the “timber harvesting land base” hasn’t even been differentiated from the legal boundaries of a TFL. As a result, many timber supply analyses are based on numbers that have no direct connection to forest conditions on the ground. They are merely informed guesses, and these guesses, therefore, introduce significant uncertainty into allowable annual cut determinations. Why would the ministry want to keep that off the public’s radar?
The image of the logging industry that government and industry have created over the years—both in BC and internationally—has been one of a “sustainable” industry, one which is highly regulated, with those regulations based on peerless science. Neither government or industry want the public to know that they collectively don’t have a good idea of the exact condition of BC’s forests on the ground. Their grand project of liquidating most natural forests in BC and replacing them with managed plantations is rife with uncertainty, including the whereabouts of commercially available forests.
When that uncertainty is compounded by other uncertainties associated with timber supply reviews—like the uncertainty inherent in the tree growth and stand yield computer models being used by the ministry to predict future timber supply, as well as uncertainty about the impacts of climate change and cumulative effects—the potential for the ministry to have overestimated timber supply becomes clear. (On top of all that uncertainty, the allowable annual cut is often fiddled upward by the chief forester to meet the political expectations of the forests minister of the day.)
If the timber harvesting land base has been overestimated, then the allowable annual cut will be too high. Indeed, comparison of the timber supply that was predicted 20 years ago with what appears to be available today suggests a dramatic decline in supply. The graph below is taken from the 2004 State of British Columbia’s Forests report—authored by the Ministry of Forests and signed by the chief forester of the day. We have added what the actual harvest has been for the period 2019-2023 (see the plunging black line). The years 2021-2022 included record high lumber prices, yet BC’s timber supply could not rise to the occasion. This is what we would expect to see if the allowable annual cut had been set too high because the areal extent of the timber harvesting land base had been overestimated, and/or the ministry’s growth and yield modelling was flawed and/or it hadn’t accounted for cumulative effects or climate change.
Similarly, satellite imagery of BC shows widely devastated forests, providing dramatic evidence of over-cutting:
The Ministry of Forests—through its proxies in academia and industry—now blames the sad state of BC’s forests on the mountain pine beetle and fires, but its past estimates of timber supply have always, supposedly, included those impacts.
This is, I believe, one of the motivations for the ministry to continue hiding mapping of the timber harvesting land base behind confidentiality agreements and BC’s failed information law. The ministry is fearful that if the public could actually see the mapping of the timber harvesting land base in TFLs, the public would be appalled at the dismal quality of information that the Ministry of Forests has been using over the last 20 years to determine the allowable annual cut for TFLs (and, for that matter, for timber supply areas).
The Ministry of Forests has, over the years, made hundreds of claims about the size of the timber harvesting land base—in timber supply analyses for both TFLs and timber supply areas—without ever having to support those claims by providing the corresponding mapping to the public.
Let’s turn now to the ministry’s second motivation back in 2003, which was to take steps that would minimize the impact of conservation initiatives on timber supply, such as legal old-growth management areas. By making the maps of the timber harvesting land base in TFLs unavailable for any other purpose than to implement the Forestry Revitalization Act, the ministry appears to have thwarted establishment of legal old growth management areas in many TFLs.
How to look good while ensuring nobody actually knows you’re not doing good
I have reported previously about a memo written in 2003 by a member of the Ministry of Forests’ “Forest and Range Evaluation Program” that shows the ministry had—out of the public’s view—established a strategy “to ensure that conservation of non-timber values is undertaken in balance with economic benefits associated with values.” That “balance” might sound good, but in practice this meant “conservation of non-timber values” could result in no more than a 6 percent reduction in “timber supply”.
But just establishing legal old-growth management areas at the minimum density then recommended by forest scientists would have had more than a 9 percent impact on timber supply. So the ministry, which was—and still is—closely aligned with the values and objectives of the logging industry, chose to ensure that establishment of old-growth management areas was limited. Were the confidentiality agreements that were exposed by the OIPC inquiry used to thwart establishment of legal old-growth management areas in TFLs? That’s how it appears to me.
Back in 2020, I was working on the Discovery Islands Forest Conservation Project. The project’s objective is to build up the capacity of communities living on those islands to communicate effectively with government about the impacts of logging. The intention is to create conditions that will lead to an increase in the amount of protected forestland. Our project supports the idea that “nature needs half”.
Toward that end, we were trying to determine why there were no legal old-growth management areas on Quadra Island, a large part of which is in TimberWest’s TFL 47. “Legal” old-growth management areas are legally mandated, spatially defined areas intended to conserve old forest within the timber harvesting land base. Forests scientists have determined that such measures are required to conserve the biodiversity and structure associated with old forests. Legal old-growth management areas are the product of “landscape level planning”, a process started by the Ministry of Forests in the late 1990s. Quadra Island had been given “high” priority for such planning in 2000, but it never took place. So we decided to carry out that planning ourselves, as best we could.
We had mapped and ground-truthed where old forest exists on Quadra Island and just needed to know where those areas coincided with the timber harvesting land base. We reasoned that if the Ministry of Forests didn’t have the resources to do this, we would do it for them. We intended to nominate those areas of old forest that overlapped the timber harvesting land base for conservation as legal old-growth management areas. But we needed to know where the timber harvesting land base was. Finding no publicly available mapping for the timber harvesting land base, we filed the FOI that led to the OIPC inquiry.
It turned out that it wasn’t just Quadra Island that didn’t have legal old-growth management areas. There were none in the entire 125,635-hectare-area of TFL 47. The current tenure holder of TFL 47 is TimberWest. The inquiry revealed that TimberWest had signed a confidentiality agreement with the Ministry of Forests in 2003. As I mentioned earlier, this agreement included a promise to use the data for a “single purpose” and that purpose, apparently, did not include establishing legal old-growth management areas.
Over the past twenty years, TimberWest has been able to log old forest throughout TFL 47 without ever having to plan for even the 9 percent minimum target for old forest set out in the 2004 Order Establishing Non-Spatial Old Growth Objectives for areas of BC that didn’t get landscape level planning. TimberWest admits that on Quadra Island the level of old forest has fallen to about 3.8 percent of the area in its TFL. The 2020 old-growth strategic review panel recommended that if the level of old forest falls below 10 percent in a landscape unit, there should be an immediate deferral of any further logging of old forest (recommendation 3.b). Yet logging of old forest in the Quadra Landscape Unit continues. We have filed a complaint with the Forest Practices Board.
This isn’t a problem that’s confined to TFL 47. In fact, 22 of the 33 TFLs scattered around BC that existed in 2003 do not contain legal old-growth management areas. Sixteen of those 22 “no-OGMA” TFLs were covered by the 2003 confidentiality/single purpose agreement (see list below). The TFLs with no legal old-growth management areas cover a gross area of 3,097,403 hectares. Of that, according to the ministry, 1,471,825 hectares are in the timber harvesting land base. That means that approximately 132,400 hectares of productive forest that should have been designated as legal old-growth management areas haven’t been.
Legislation that led to the establishment of old-growth management areas was enacted in recognition of the critical need to protect the biological diversity and structure associated with old forests. The legislation is proof that protecting biological diversity is a matter of public policy in BC. If the confidentiality agreements signed by the Ministry of Forests in 2003 and 2013 have thwarted the ability of public officials to carry out that public policy, then the confidentiality agreements should be, under the common law doctrine of “Public Policy”, unenforceable, and the mapping should be released to the public.
Once the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner has made an order regarding the mapping, I will report on that.
Below is a list of the TFLs in BC that have no old-growth management areas. Areas shown are gross areas. Those marked with an asterisk* were offered confidentiality agreements in 2003:
TFL 3—Interfor—78,672 hectares*
TFL 8—Interfor—77,870 hectares*
TFL 14—Crestbrook Forest Industries—150,968 hectares*
TFL 19—Western Forest Products—171,111 hectares*
TFL 23—Pope & Talbot—313,778 hectares*
TFL 25—Western Forest Products—196,233 hectares*
TFL 26—District of Mission—14,828 hectares
TFL 30—Canfor—179,809 hectares*
TFL 33—Federated Co-operatives—8396 hectares*
TFL 38—Interfor—177,381 hectares*
TFL 43—Holmalco Forestry—5405 hectares
TFL 45—Interfor—223,272 hectares*
TFL 47—TimberWest—125,635 hectares*
TFL 48—Canfor—625,980 hectares*
TFL 49—Tolko—110,510 hectares*
TFL 53—Dunkley Lumber—87,838 hectares*
TFL 54—Ma-Mook Natural Resources—136,008 hectares*
TFL 55—Louisiana-Pacific Canada—92,657 hectares*
TFL 56-Revelstoke Community Forest—119,353 hectares
TFL 59-Weyerhauser—46,894 hectares
TFL 60—Taan Forest—134,565 hectares
TFL 61—Pacheedaht-Andersen Timber Holdings—20,240 hectares
Total gross area of TFLs with no OGMAs—3,097,403 hectares