Mike Morris puts it on the line for biodiversity

Written By Jeff Davies

Mike Morris, ex-RCMP officer and superintendent, former Solicitor General, current BC Liberal MLA, husband and father, hunter, trapper, angler, and camper, pulls up in front of the Coast Hotel in Prince George in a cherry red Ford F350 pickup. He’s hauling a trailer that holds a 4X4 utility vehicle that looks sturdy enough to tackle everything from a bog to a mine field. 

We’re off to the bush to see just what it is that has made Morris a passionate advocate for wildlife and the environment, and a critic of some of his own party’s policies, indeed the policies that have guided forest management by all political parties in B.C. for nearly eight decades.  

“I’m a pragmatic person,” Morris says. “I’m not a politician, even though I have to dress up like one once in a while. And I need to make sure that I present facts. So that’s what I’ve been doing.” 

The previous day, in his constituency office, using maps, slides, and charts, he spent more than an hour analyzing and explaining forest policy in B.C.  

Mike Morris in his Prince George constituency office in September. [Photo Jeff Davies]

At times, it’s clear Morris is using the investigative techniques he learned during 32 years of policing, as well as the leadership skills he honed supervising 1,200 people as RCMP chief superintendent for the North. It’s all about gathering evidence, he says.

“Disappeared” wood

 “I’ve got records of all the wood that has been cut in B.C. since 1910,” says Morris. When he was parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, he had access to all sorts of forestry data. Since then, he’s put thousands of kilometres on his truck looking at the various areas and reviewing satellite imagery on Google Earth. 

“I see about a 30 per cent difference between what’s missing and what’s actually accounted for,” he says. “We’re missing a bunch of wood up there that’s somehow disappeared.” 

In his analysis, the forests have been over-harvested, the cut under-reported, the impact on the environment poorly understood, and the laws not enforced. The result is a forest bereft of biodiversity, a word he uses frequently in speeches and interviews.

An old logging road north of Prince George cuts through a clearcut the size of Surrey. [Photo Jeff Davies]

Today, an hour north of the city, Morris unloads the ATV and we head into a sprawling clearcut, bumping and swerving along deeply rutted roads, through what remains of nearly 300 square kilometres of forest. An area roughly the size of the city of Surrey, it was harvested within the last four years. Logging crews cut 1.8 million cubic metres of timber, he says. 

“Phenomenal when you think about it.” One of the new, modern logging trucks will hold about 45 cubic metres of wood. “Divide that into your 1.8 million and that’s a lot of logging truckloads of wood [about 40,000] that went into local mills. But everything was taken.” 

Stark environment

What strikes him when he surveys the landscape now? “The starkness of it,” says Morris. “There is very little habitat here.”

A bear or two may be in the forest eating berries, having returned in the last two or three years. But there’s no habitat for raptors, or fur-bearers, and no ungulate habitat to keep them safe, he says.

“It’s just a sterile environment here.” 

Morris surveys a massive clearcut in the Prince George Timber Supply Area in September. [Photo Jeff Davies]

As he speaks, the wind blows over the greying stumps, through the purple fireweed, and the green and yellow of young aspen, birch, willow, and dogwood that are coming back. Morris says the prospects for regeneration are good. “But we’re looking at about a 150-year recovery for this area to bring back the habitat to the point where it was before, to sustain the wildlife that is indigenous to this particular area – the moose the raptors, the goshawks… fisher, marten, all the variety of birds that we have throughout this area.” 

“It’s just a sterile environment here.” 

Mike Morris

There are still a few evergreens, but he says the logging crews should have left behind a lot more seed trees like mature balsam fir, spruce and pine. 

What did this landscape look like before? “There was no dead spruce before they started logging. It was pristine, primary forest. It was great habitat for fur-bearers, great habitat for moose, great habitat for raptors. It was probably one of the few sizeable areas in the interior left here that was intact fur-bearer habitat.”

Wildlife “virtually eliminated”

We return to the pickup; Morris loads the ATV back in the trailer and we continue north along Highway 97, before turning onto logging roads. We see mile after mile of second growth forest as well as patches of marshland that look like ideal moose habitat. But we see no moose, and little wildlife of any kind, except two bear cubs and a few birds.

“You know, each time you log, it displaces the animals from that particular area you log. And over the years the cumulative logging has virtually eliminated the habitat for moose, and for the bears and for the birds to the point where they’re not existent anymore.”

Morris muses about the province’s forest management. He wants to replace the current volume-based approach with an ecologically-based model with a chief ecologist rather than a chief forester. He’d reduce the annual cut by up to 50 per cent, preserve more old growth, and move to selective logging. 

It’s the sort of language that appeals to environmentalists but makes the industry bristle: what about the thousands of jobs that will be lost? The mills that will close? The communities that will lose their livelihood? 

“We’re going to be out of trees one day and the jobs will be gone. Wildlife are gone anyway.”

Mike Morris

“The guys that say they’re going to be out of a job, they’re going to be out of a job anyways,” Morris tells me. “I can’t make trees grow faster. I haven’t met anybody who can. We’re going to be out of trees one day, the people are going to be out of work, and the jobs will be gone. Wildlife are gone anyway.”

Finally, Morris parks the pickup and unloads the ATV once more. This time, we’re heading 15 kilometres down an overgrown resource road – more of a trail now – that Morris, and his two police officer sons, cleared out themselves over the span of about five years. The trail leads through a tangle of undergrowth and hanging limbs, rock and gravel, mud and downed trees as we follow Morris’ trap line, ending at the remote lake where he built a cabin on leased land.

Paradise loss

It looks like a piece of Canadian paradise: not a sound of traffic or machinery, a dark lake ringed by evergreen and aquatic vegetation.  When we arrive in the late afternoon, it’s whipped into whitecaps by a stiff wind. When the wind dies down, we hear the call of a loon. 

Early morning view from Morris’ cabin in the wild. [Photo Jeff Davies]

The next morning, it’s as calm as glass, the air has the bite of early autumn, mists are rising, ducks are paddling by, and trout are jumping. But again, Morris is reminded of all that’s been lost. It’s too quiet. He has seen only one moose along the trail this year. There are fewer birds at the lake. And he hasn’t seen a goshawk in 10 years.

People today come to wooded areas like this and think they’re in the wilderness, he says. “They think that it’s great that there’s wildlife around because they did see a bear on the way in or they saw a moose track. But there’s nothing here. It’s gone.”

Morris calls himself a conservationist, rather than an environmentalist, but he has always been an outdoorsman. He was galvanized to become an activist for biodiversity by what he observed while serving as the Ministry of Forests parliamentary secretary in the cabinet of former premier Christy Clark. She asked him to review wildlife habitat across the province. 

“It has impacted every corner of the province. I was quite shocked at what I saw.”

Mike Morris

“I did so with vigour,” he says. “And I was perhaps naïve when I went into politics and went into this particular role, thinking that the loss of habitat and cumulative effects were basically in the Prince George timber supply area where my trap line was. What I found out when I became the parliamentary secretary was this is a province-wide issue, and it has impacted every corner of the province.

“I was quite shocked at what I saw.”

Morris had a chance to tour the forests by helicopter, to review the records and reports, and to study aerial mapping online to see the impact of clear-cutting over the decades. Using Google Earth time lapse to show verdant forest disappearing in a patchwork of clearcuts, he put on a demonstration for his colleagues. 

Getting the balance wrong

In his 2015 report to the minister, Getting the Balance Right, Morris concludes, “There is an urgency and a heightened concern among resident hunters, guide outfitters, trappers, the wildlife viewing industry and conservationists that the province is not acting quickly enough to address the decrease in wildlife populations and the degradation of wildlife habitat.”

Morris surveys the tree tops for birds. [Photo Jeff Davies]

It sounded like a challenge, not just to his government and party, but to all parties that have governed B.C. through decades of clear-cutting. 

In October of 2021, Morris, by this time an Opposition MLA, went even farther in a speech to the house: “For the last 50 years, I’ve trapped, hunted, fished, camped, and hiked through the Interior of the province. Over these 50 years, I’ve witnessed the slow and gradual transformation of our natural forests into what industry terms ‘working forests,’ or mono-conifer plantations. I’ve witnessed the cumulative effects of clearcutting and the impacts of the disappearance of wildlife populations.”

In his view, the problems started with the release of what is known as the Sloan Royal Commission Report on B.C. forest resources in 1945. The report recommended the government pursue a “sustained yield” policy in forest management stating, “a sustained yield policy has one objective, the maintenance of forest cover and growth, thus ensuring a perpetual supply of raw materials for forest industries with consequent stability of industrial communities and assurance of permanent payrolls.”

Morris says until the 1970s, successive B.C. governments ignored all forest values other than supplying raw materials for industry and job creation.  

In his 2015 report, and in subsequent speeches in the house, Morris poses a blunt question: “Did the royal commission in 1945 envision the sustainable yield policy as transforming 22 million hectares of forest into managed forests – or referred to as working forests by the industry – focused on yield and growth only, with no considerations for the other values on the land? Did they envision an automated forest industry employing a fraction of the population that it once did?” 

Clash of values

Fellow MLA John Rustad, from the nearby riding of Nechako Lakes, has drawn very different conclusions. Rustad also served as parliamentary secretary in the forests ministry and later, as Opposition forests critic. 

“The benefits of forest products are enormous for society, not just for jobs, and supporting families and communities, but also from an environmental perspective,” says Rustad. “Our forest products are the greenest, most renewable, most environmentally friendly products that we can use. The alternatives are more damaging to the environment.”

Rustad was ousted from the BC Liberal caucus earlier this year by new party leader Kevin Falcon for “a pattern of behaviour that was not supportive of our caucus team and the principles of mutual respect and trust,” which included Rustad  refusing to retract social media posts denying climate warming with the hashtag #CelebrateCO2, among other reported incidents.

“Mike’s analysis is skewed. I don’t think it accurately reflects the values that we need to achieve from the forest sector.”

John rustad

Rustad now sits as an Independent, although he endorsed the BC Conservative candidate in the recent Surrey South recent byelection. He points to his roots in the forest industry: “I’ve done everything from planting trees to timber supply analysis. I’ve done watershed analysis, development plans. You know, I’ve looked at very, very high-level analyses of our forest sector and very low-level detailed analyses of our forest sector, and our policy and approaches of the forest sector. And that’s why I think Mike’s analysis is skewed. I don’t think it accurately reflects the values that we need to achieve from the forest sector.”

It may come down to perspective and priorities: Morris spent his professional career as a police officer – and his free time in the bush. He has seen the forests through the eye of a trapper, hunter, angler and camper, whereas Rustad spent 20 years working in the forestry sector and an equal time as an elected official.

According to Rustad, a significant portion of B.C.’s land base – beyond the 14 per cent set aside for parks, recreation and protected areas – “will never see any industrial forest activity.”

Sustain the forestry sector

Rustad says the biodiversity question is an interesting one. He doesn’t deny industrial logging has an impact, “but there’s a debate in terms of what level of biodiversity should be protected and what we need to be doing to be able to maintain certain levels while being able to sustain the forest sector.”

Sustaining the forest sector. There are those words again; the need to sustain the forest sector has – as Morris points out – underwritten B.C. forest policy since the post-war days. 

The government’s own forestry guidelines vary, stipulating anywhere from one to 15 per cent of forest associated with a cutblock must remain standing post-logging. Some scientists argue much more is needed to maintain biodiversity and resilient ecosystems. Canada is a signatory of the international initiative to protect 50 per cent of its land base by 2050.

Although Morris and Rustad served together in the BC Liberal caucus for nine years, tensions today are evident. Rustad says the policies Morris is recommending would shut down as much as two-thirds of the province’s forestry industry. 

Morris says the aggressive logging Rustad supports has depleted the forests and will ultimately leave workers unemployed.  (Indeed, employment in the B.C. forest sector has dropped sharply over the last thirty years: from more than 100,000 jobs in 1994 to 43,000 in 2020, according to Statistics Canada and the B.C. government.) He says Rustad is “parroting the COFI line,” referring to the Council of Forest Industries, which represents big companies such as Canfor.

Rustad, meanwhile, alleges Morris is supported by “environmental elites,” and suggests BC Liberal leader Falcon has “bowed to cancel culture and those environmental elites,” by firing him and allowing Morris to speak out in the house about the need to reduce the harvest and move to selective logging. Rustad says it’s a trade-off Falcon is making to keep Morris onside and to lure urban voters.

Falcon flatly denies Rustad’s allegation he was fired for having a different opinion.

“Not once has he been told he cannot have a voice… in our caucus,” says Falcon. “I’m very comfortable with people having differing opinions. That’s what makes us a strong caucus.”

Meanwhile, he says Morris raises important issues and has spent a lot of time on the land base.

“He cares very strongly about biodiversity. As do I,” says Falcon. “And I want to make sure that as we think about our forestry industry, we also think about biodiversity, and about making sure that we do everything we can to ensure our forestry practices are doing the best they can to maintain the biodiversity that’s so important in our forestry basins.”

Reversal of BC Liberal policy unlikely

If, as Rustad speculates, the BC Liberals have thrown in their lot with these so-called “environmental elites,” it would likely be shocking news to their members. And would represent a seismic shift from the policies the party pursued during its most recent 16 years in government. 

It was in October of 2001, a few months after Gordon Campbell’s BC Liberal government was elected, that then forests minister Mike de Jong signalled the new forestry policy approach. In an open cabinet meeting, he announced a series of sweeping changes that were described in various newspaper headlines as “putting a match to forest policies,” a “forest overhaul,” or “taking an axe to (Forest Renewal) BC.” 

Forest Renewal BC was the crown corporation launched by the NDP in the 1990s which invested hundreds millions of dollars from “super stumpage fees” into silviculture and retraining workers.

Few files have been as contentious in government as forests. When former forests minister Andrew Petter launched Forest Renewal BC, he told reporters the idea was to manage the forest for values other than just the marketplace. 

In 2001, Mike de Jong rejected what he called “social engineering” and took the opposite stance, saying the government would pursue market-driven policies. The government would not tell the companies when to harvest, who to employ, nor where to mill their wood; it dropped the appurtenancy clauses that tied the harvest to specific mills, in specific communities. 

Fast forward to today. While Kevin Falcon may have expanded the BC Liberal tent to accommodate free speech of Mike Morris and his views on forest management, there are no signs of a stampede of BC Liberal MLAs to support Morris publicly, or to shift party policy to supporting a chief ecologist and selective logging. He says there have been some long silences in caucus after he’s spelled out his views on reforming forest management.

Morris “a team player”

Meanwhile, Morris says he’s a team player. He remains a BC Liberal and a federal Conservative. He’s compelled to speak out about the biodiversity destruction he’s witnessed, but he has no illusions the party is going to suddenly shift gears on his say so. 

Regardless, his actions are drawing plaudits from the environmental community and the outdoor recreation sector. 

“It was actually refreshing to hear someone, especially from the BC Liberal Party, essentially come out to say the emperor has no clothes when it comes to many of the long-standing forest policies in B.C.,” says Professor Phil Burton, a specialist in Ecosystem Science and Management at the University of Northern BC.  

Morris shared his 2015 report on biodiversity with Burton. The professor doesn’t agree with all of Morris’ findings, but was encouraged by his approach.

“Many of us who look at the forest from an ecological, environmental, or cultural perspective are often frustrated by the fact that really the economic imperative seems to take precedence, despite all the good words and intentions in the Forest Act and the Forest and Range Practices Act,” says Burton.

Support from the trenches

Michelle Connolly, an ecologist and director of Conservation North in Prince George, says she was surprised to hear Morris speak out for biodiversity: “We highly value the work that Mike Morris has shown on the issue of protecting natural forests across the board.”

Michelle Connelly in an old-growth Inland Temperate Rainforest east of Prince George. [Photo Conservation North]

As for biodiversity specifically, “it’s really impressive, the stance that he’s taken,” said Connelly, whose non-profit organization advocates to protect old-growth forests across B.C., particularly the Inland Temperate Rainforest of the northern Interior.

“It’s incredibly courageous for someone like him to take a stand and say what ought to happen, which is that we need to be protecting old-growth forests here, full stop, if we want to have any kind of future here for biodiversity in this region,” Connelly said.

Morris finds some environmentalists are conflicted because he traps “little furry animals,” but Connolly says she recognizes that many of Conservation North supporters “are people that spend a lot of their time on the land. So these are people that fish, and people who hunt, and people who forage for berries and mushrooms. These people know that they depend on intact ecosystems for their livelihoods and their recreational activities.”

Jackie Thomas, a councillor and former chief of Saik’uz First Nation, whose territory lies near Vanderhoof, has spent decades working on resource management. “I’m proud of Mike Morris for taking that stand about the sustainability of it,” she says. “I just don’t know about the selective harvest.”

Thomas doubts the machinery now used in industrial logging can be adapted for selective harvesting. And while she’s glad Morris is speaking out now, she wishes he and others who’ve served in government had done so earlier.

Redistribute timber licensing tenures

video on the Saik’uz website documents clearcutting on the First Nation’s traditional territory, saying most of the forest and other resources are now gone.

“Call it a collapse. Because honestly, it’s been eradicated by humans.”

JAckie Thomas

“Call it a collapse,” Thomas says. “Because honestly, it’s been eradicated by humans. I’m not going to fight for humans, but I will for my animals that our people depend on because we’re not well-off.”

Much of the forests in Saik’uz First Nation territory have been over-harvested. [Image Saik’uz Nation, Old Growth, New Beginnings]

Thomas says the government needs to take the timber licencing tenure away from the big companies and ensure First Nations manage resources on their own territories.

“If (Morris) supported First Nation jurisdiction on tribal lands, I would support it no problem. Because I think we can manage our territory way better than what’s been done in the last 100 years,” she said.

As a life-long hunter and former president of the BC Trappers Association, Morris’ views have also garnered support from the hunting and trapping community. 

“If we want to maintain our (wildlife) … we need to start managing habitat and predation.”

Fraser MacDonald

Fraser MacDonald from the Guide Outfitters Association of BC is a hunting guide and rancher based in the Prince George area. He and his wife own guiding rights in a 3,000-square mile area in northern B.C. MacDonald agrees with the need to manage the forest industry for values other than timber. Their outfitting website says, “people need to realize that if we want to maintain our moose, our elk, our deer, we need to wake up and we need to start managing habitat and predation.”

Moose near the Mackenzie area. [Photo Fraser MacDonald]

Also a wildlife biologist, MacDonald says Morris is the first B.C. politician brave enough to raise those issues at the provincial level.

He says Morris is respected in the community. “I haven’t heard anything but good things about him. He was a good RCMP officer from all I’ve heard. He’s been really good in office, good as an MLA.” 

But can Morris take on the B.C. forest industry? I can hear the chuckle over the crackling cell phone line before MacDonald speaks. He figures the deck is stacked against those who try to reform forest management, but he credits Morris with changing the conversation and bringing the issues to light. 

Changing the conversation

That’s exactly what Morris hopes to do. 

Relaxing over a beer at his cabin overlooking the lake, Morris reflects on how he became an outdoorsman, and how his experiences growing up and serving in the RCMP inform his views and guide his practices.

“There was a lot of trauma in my early life, and, quite frankly, through my career in the RCMP as well,” he tells me. He came from a big family, one of ten kids, and they moved a lot. “I think there were 17 schools I went to from Grade one to 12.” 

Morris used to hunt moose until he became worried about their plummeting population levels. Seen here in 1983. [Photo supplied]

From a very early age he spent his free time outdoors. “This was an escape all the time, and I found it, perhaps, quite accidentally, in one of the communities I lived in, as a young boy. It was quite remote. I would get away by myself and I found a lot of solace in that.”

That’s when he first started observing wildlife and the viciousness of nature. “You know, an animal killing another one to survive. And it just kind of grew from there. It was just an automatic thing to be a hunter and a trapper and a fisherman. “

“I would get away by myself and I found a lot of solace in that.”

Mike Morris

He graduated from high school in Salmon Arm, moved to northern Manitoba, worked in the mines and drove trucks before joining the RCMP and returning to B.C. 

“Often in the early part of my RCMP career I would take my holidays just in the mountains all by myself with a rifle in the backpack, just looking at the marvels of nature in the wilderness…. It’s one of the foundational things that I always go back to. It keeps me on that piece of granite that keeps you focused in life.”

Morris in the bush about 200 kilometres north of Fort St. James. [Photo supplied]

Later, when he got a trapline, after a long week’s work, Morris would sometimes jump in his truck, drive out to the trapline in minus 30 Celcius, jump on his skidoo and head into the bush.

“And it was tranquility. It was like taking a 10-pound aspirin.”

“It keeps me on that piece of granite that keeps you focused in life.”

Mike Morris

That sense of tranquility kept him grounded. “I’ve been shot at (while) in a helicopter coming in to check on somebody in a boat. There had been a robbery and some people held hostage. Of course, (the fugitive) tried to shoot the helicopter out of the sky. So there were all those things over the years; you’re expected to go to work the next day and carry on.”

Through those experiences, while finding comfort and peace in the bush, he also observed changes on the landscape, the dwindling wildlife, the loss of biodiversity – a word he had never used until 10 or 15 years ago. Still, Morris says he’s an optimist by nature. He thinks we can reap the benefits of the forest resource while protecting nature. 

“We’re going to learn more down the road here. But you know, science has evolved enough that we can take multiple riches off the land and not destroy the biodiversity that we have.”