Can’t see the forest for the missing trees, says former BC minister

Written By Jeff Davies

“It was my perception that the amount harvested was far greater than what was reported.”

––Mike Morris

A veteran MLA and former B.C. cabinet minister says a lack of oversight of the forest industry has cost British Columbians “millions or billions of dollars” in lost revenues, as well as damage to the environment, wildlife habitat, and natural resources.

“Ever since I got elected back in 2013, I’ve been making presentations every year to caucus members,” says Mike Morris, MLA for Prince George-McKenzie for BC United, formerly the BC Liberals. “And it’s been the same message: the loss of biodiversity, the impact of over-harvesting on wildlife, and the impact of over-harvesting, period. And it goes without any consideration.”

In an interview with Northern Beat in August 2022, Morris said he believes B.C. forests have not only been over-harvested, but the cut has been under-reported. By his estimate, as much as 30 per cent of the forest is actually “missing.”

Now Morris has expanded on that. In an interview last month at the B.C. legislature, he said he’s seen evidence of forest companies logging more than their tenure would allow. 

So, as an ex-RCMP officer and superintendent with 32 years in criminal investigation, would he be willing to repeat that in court? 

“You bet I would!” 

Morris was first elected in 2013. He served as parliamentary secretary to the minister of forests, lands, and natural resource operations, and later as solicitor general, in the government of former premier Christy Clark. He is not seeking re-election in October.

Campbell shifted sector towards self-reliance

As a politician, Morris has earned a reputation as an outspoken and independent thinker on forest policy. He’s critical of the way governments of all political stripes have managed B.C. forests over the past 80 years, arguing that the needs of industry for a steady flow of wood fibre have trumped all other values.

“It’s frustrating to see all the projections I’ve made, and people are still burying their heads in the sand,” he says. 

Ironically, many of the policies Morris criticizes were introduced under the BC Liberals, the party he later represented. Prior to Morris becoming an MLA, the government of then-premier Gordon Campbell announced sweeping reforms to make forest policies less prescriptive and more responsive to the marketplace. 

The forests minister at the time, Mike de Jong, said the government would no longer tell companies where to mill their timber. He dropped the appurtenance clauses that tied harvests to specific communities and mills.

The Campbell government was responding to years of complaints from the forest industry about what it considered an excessive regulatory burden under the Forest Practices Code introduced by Mike Harcourt’s NDP government in the 1990s.  

“It’s frustrating to see all the projections I’ve made, and people are still burying their heads in the sand.”

Mike Morris

The BC Liberals replaced the code with the Forest and Range Practices Act. Many of the earlier provisions, such as the limits on clearcutting, remained. But the Campbell government moved towards self-enforcement. It applied what’s known as professional reliance to oversee resource industries such as forestry and mining. The industry could hire its own professionals to assess the plans, then submit them to the B.C. government for review. 

It was frequently described by the Campbell government as a results-based approach, rather than one imposed by Victoria, and it was popular with forestry companies. But conservationists doubted the industry would get the scrutiny it needed, and worried professionals would be reluctant to criticize the companies that paid their salaries.

Professional reliance was ‘end of accountability’

In 2013, the BC Forest Practices Boad issued a bulletin that said, while professional reliance is a legitimate approach, “individual professionals working for a licensee are challenged to balance their employer’s interests with public expectations, placing them in a difficult position with a perceived vested interest.”

It added, “Where objectives are not clear, or where competing interests and values are in play, it is not realistic to expect professionals working for licensees to define the public interest.

Looking back, Morris says, “that was the end of accountability.” He notes that, while the forest legislation has some positive aspects, the former government inserted an “exit ramp” clause in the regulations that ensured environmental protections would not “unduly affect” the amount of timber available for harvesting. 

Morris recalls the first time he read those words: “I jumped out of my chair and said, ‘Oh my God! You’ve just nullified everything you’ve asked for by saying that.’ “

Only in the past year did the NDP government remove that provision. It has also maintained the professional reliance model while introducing legislation to set up a new office of professional governance – to oversee the overseers, as it were. 

‘You guys are untouchable’

Now, Morris reflects on his political career, sitting in his soon-to-be vacated office at the B.C. legislature. He’s surrounded by boxes, photos, and memorabilia.

Packing day: Mike Morris at his desk in his legislative office. [Photo Jeff Davies]

There’s also a coat rack draped with furs; Morris is a lifelong hunter and trapper. He has a trap line and a cabin deep in the woods north of Prince George, where he’s observed changes in the forest over decades. 

Although he remains popular with constituents, Morris says people in the forest industry no longer speak to him.

“If you don’t pull back on the throttle, we will be out of harvestable wood within the next eight to 10 years.” 

Mike Morris (2015)

Back in 2015, he made a presentation to COFI, the Council of Forest Industries, telling industry leaders it looked like their forest stewardship plans had been sanitized by their corporate lawyers. 

In that presentation, Morris also pointed out he had spent his RCMP career investigating criminals. But he told COFI, “You guys are untouchable. There is nothing government can do to stop you, and if you don’t pull back on the throttle, we will be out of harvestable wood within the next eight to 10 years.” 

“Some of them were mad. One came up to me, very aggressive, he was angry at me, and he said no-one had ever spoken to him that way before.”

Gaps in the harvesting record

As a cabinet minister, Morris had the chance to study the records of a century of logging. He compared those to changes he’s seen from the air, on the ground, and in satellite imagery. He says the numbers don’t add up.

Morris would like to see the B.C. government launch a forensic audit of the forest industry to see if there have been any “nefarious” practices, a word he uses several times in the interview.

During his two years as parliamentary secretary for forests, he spent a lot of time travelling  B.C. by helicopter, and also drove thousands of kilometers on forest service roads to observe logging activity.

“I was given the total amount harvested every year. I’ve still got it on my computer from 1910 through until 2014,” Morris says.

“I had, by year, the amounts of wood harvested, and the areas cleared. And when I looked at the amount of lumber and ultimate paper products and stuff that have resulted from that, it didn’t jibe with me. There was a gap I estimated at about 30 per cent.”

Much of this rests on Morris’s own observations, calculations, and judgment, but he also has sources on the ground. And it’s been well documented that there was aggressive logging during the salvage of pine beetle-killed timber in B.C..

Impossible to weigh every log

He once got a tip from a northern mayor that part of the local timber supply area had been over-harvested by 400 per cent. “And I put that to the [ministry of forests] district manager, who confirmed it. But he had no authority as district manager to prevent that from happening.” 

“I was immersed in this stuff. It was my perception that the amount harvested was far greater than what was reported,” says Morris.

“They told us it was sustainable and we know it wasn’t.”

Ken Watson

He was focused on habitat loss associated with the millions of hectares of clearcuts across the province, particularly in the Prince George and McKenzie timber supply areas. “The amount of wood coming out of the bush was enormous and, I’m sure, overwhelmed the weight scales.”

Given the volume, he says it was impossible to properly weigh every log and calculate the stumpage accurately, so much of it was based on estimates. And, since beetle-damaged wood is lighter than green wood and subject to lower stumpage, there’s the opportunity to manipulate the results.

“My understanding is that they would randomly select various loads and take those loads apart just to see what was in there and do an actual scale of the volume,” he says. “And then, based on the weight, they would say, OK, any load coming in with this amount of weight will have this much volume.” 

Morris has talked to logging contractors who share his concerns about the amount of wood harvested and the difficulty in correctly calculating the quantity and the stumpage. 

Ken Watson, a former contractor from Prince George who now works as a hunting and fishing outfitter, says he isn’t privy to the numbers and can’t say if companies broke the law, but that he’s witnessed the destruction of the forest. 

“They told us it was sustainable and we know it wasn’t.” 

Industry blames ‘challenging operating conditions’

Over the past decade, the industry has shrunk and thousands of forestry workers have lost their jobs. Last month, one of the biggest companies, Canfor, announced plans to close a production line in its Northwood pulp mill in Prince George and a sawmill in Bear Lake, and it suspended plans to invest in a new manufacturing facility in Houston.

The company blames “a persistent shortage of economically available timber and challenging operating conditions,” including old growth deferrals and complex harvesting regulations, as well as beetle infestations and wildfire.

BC United leader Kevin Falcon accuses the NDP government of “facilitating the collapse of an industry that has long been the backbone of our provincial economy.”

BC Conservative leader John Rustad says the government’s policies have “made it almost impossible to operate in B.C.”

“[The BC NDP are] facilitating the collapse of an industry that has long been the backbone of our provincial economy.”

Kevin Falcon

Certainly, the beetle kill has been a major setback, wildfires are a constant threat, and environmental protection has created uncertainty for the companies – but Morris continues to point the finger at past over-harvesting. 

“I think there was a notion at the time during that period of prolific beetle damage that we’ve got to get this wood out as quickly as we can. And there’s all kinds of wood out there so let’s just cut it all down,” said Morris. 

Companies were told to harvest no more than 30 per cent green timber. “But when you look at the clearcuts, everything was taken. I saw this on my own trap line. There was a mixed stand of pine and some spruce and balsam and maybe some Douglas fir. But everything was taken. Forest companies would say, well, it was 70 per cent pine, but in actual fact I think it was a little bit different.”

The result in B.C. forests, says Morris, was “a convoluted mess.”

Pellet credits linked to over-harvesting

Companies had another incentive to harvest aggressively. Since 2006, the B.C. government has been giving logging companies a credit for harvesting lower grade trees. If they sold those trees to pellet mills, it wouldn’t count towards their Allowable Annual Cut. 

B.C. Centre for Policy Alternatives researcher Ben Parfitt documented the practice. “The credits effectively amount to a government-sanctioned double-dip for the logging industry. But the biggest consequence may be that the logging is off the books,” Parfitt wrote in the National Observer.

The B.C. government defended the forest credit program in a 2021 policy paper. “Specifically, in B.C.’s interior, cut control ‘crediting’ has been used for years to encourage the salvage of lower-quality fibre by not attributing for that tenure holder’s AAC. This approach was helpful when salvaging timber damaged by the mountain pine beetle but does not address new challenges such as mid-term timber supply.”

Michelle Connolly, a director of Conservation North in Prince George, says her group appreciates Morris’s emphasis on preserving biodiversity in the forest and his advocacy for wildlife. She agrees the beetle kill salvage program provided a cover for over-harvesting.

“From an ecological standpoint, there absolutely is over-harvesting happening,” says Connolly. “When you drive animals that were once plentiful into the state that they’re in now, such as mountain caribou, fisher, bull trout, northern goshawk, that’s an indication that what you’re doing is fundamentally unsustainable.”

“From an ecological standpoint, there absolutely is over-harvesting happening.”

Michelle Connolly

Connolly isn’t alleging any illegality; she believes forest companies simply took advantage of the breaks given to them. “And if any additional harvesting that people aren’t aware of is happening it might be under that system, but on the whole …we are in deep trouble ecologically.” 

Three years ago, Conservation North released an interactive map it called Seeing Red, which shows which parts of B.C. have, in its words, “been disturbed by human activity.” Those areas are in red; the primary forest – forest that has never been logged – is in green. 

At first glance, the map is a sea of red from the U.S. border to the Yukon. It’s only as you expand it that pockets of green become evident. Connolly says that’s where we have an opportunity to change the management of B.C. forests. “We need to stop logging altogether in primary forests and then do better management in second growth.” 

Mike Morris hasn’t called for a stop to all harvesting of primary forest, but he does agree on the need to halt clear-cutting and to manage the forest from an ecological perspective.  

Mike Morris walks the legislative halls for one of the last times as an MLA. [Photo Jeff Davies]

As his political career draws to a close, Morris hopes the facts he’s presented, the analyses he’s done, and the arguments he’s made will make a difference in the way British Columbia manages the forests. 

“I think it’s a seed that’s planted and it will start growing. The pressure against governments will grow for not doing the right thing.”