Red flags and hopes for the Independent Review of Forestry Practices in Nova Scotia

In an op-ed, Government overhaul key to forestry reform (Chronicle Herald, Nov 28, 2017), Dale Smith reviews the lead-up to the Independent Review, its terms of reference and offers a set five recommendations that reflect his experience as a senior bureaucrat in both the NS Dept of Environment and the NS Dept of Natural Resources (he’s now retired).

His perspective that “it is hard not to be skeptical about the recently-announced review”, but “at the same time, it is prudent to avoid rushing to pre-judgment” is shared by many people, myself included, who want the Independent Review to be successful.

On the skeptical side, Dale Smith cites the failure of NSDNR/Government to follow through on the initial commitments made following the Natural Resources Strategy 2010 process which he describes as ” the most comprehensive and credible public review of natural resources policy ever undertaken in Nova Scotia.”

On the terms of reference he comments that the “direction provided is loosely stated and lacking in clarity of intent…there also are many red flags regarding process.” On the latter, he cites
– the tight timeline
– expert advice is retained through DNR
– stakeholder and public input, yet to be scheduled, is indicated as straddling the Christmas holidays
– “reference also is made to an interim report — but without any provision for public review and comment”

The one saving grace he sees is the selection of Prof. Bill Lahey and that he has been given a blank sheet for his analysis.

Amongst Dale Smith’s five recommendations, the first one is to:

Consolidate responsibilities for Crown land, biodiversity, wildlife, provincial parks and protected areas within one department with a mandate for stewardship of Nova Scotia’s natural capital assets. Under the current structure, the obvious candidate would be an expanded Environment Department, but a more comprehensive restructuring of government could present other options as well.

I suspect that recommendation is the least likely to be followed. The other four recommendations I view as ones that collectively provide an alternative involving less fundamental change in the structure of the government itself.

My main concern about the review process is the degree to which it is truly independent or can be perceived as such.

The terms of reference were drafted by DNR, and bureaucratically its home is in the Forestry Division of NSDNR. The latter could discourage people who have concerns about DNR policies or practices, but are dependent on DNR for their livelihoods, from participating.

Very problematical in my view, at least in regard to optics if not in substance, is the apparently prominent role of the only advisor amongst the eight who resides in NS. I say “prominent” because Prof. Duinker is appointed to “assist with research and advisory services”, and is also the supervisor of the graduate student acting as a research assistant to Prof Lahey and is also a member of the DNR Forest Biodiversity Science Advisory Committee whose advice is being sought by the Independent Review. (I also wonder why the DNR Forest Biodiversity Science Advisory Committee is specifically cited in an advisory role, rather than being simply one component of DNR’s forest management structure to be reviewed and the members, which include DNR staff, interviewed.)

I see it as “problematical” because Prof. Duinker has significant interactions with DNR, e.g. currently as a supervisor for PhD studies by a DNR scientist, and has received substantive funding from Northern Pulp. Other than the optics, those might not be worrisome on their own – Prof Duinker has interacted with many forest interest groups and is a well recognized and published academic (several of his papers are cited on this website) and has supervised many students who have gone on to forest-friendly careers. He was obviously seen as an asset to the review process.

The difficulty arises in relation to the degree to which the Independent Review can be viewed as an impartial, 3rd party review of forestry practices in Nova Scotia with a focus on Crown lands. Prof. Duinker has expressed strong opinions on how a forest review process should be conducted, in 2012 writing a paper that essentially trashed the Natural Resources Strategy process (yes, the one Dale Smith views as “the most comprehensive and credible public review of natural resources policy ever undertaken in Nova Scotia”). Just recently (Oct 3) he reiterated his opinion of the Natural Resources Strategy process before a Senate committee and, remarkably, also said:

In my opinion, the forests [of Nova Scotia] are not being pushed too hard, especially the regulated Crown forests

Please tell the salmon and the birds not to worry! (Apologies, that’s my gut reaction to the statement. I clearly would not be a good candidate for an advisor.)

NSDNR Minister MacDonell at rally in 2010: “There’s gonna be a reduction in clearcutting in Nova Scotia.” View video

Are these opinions not prejudgments on two issues – successive governments pulling back from initial commitments following the Natural Resources Strategy process (which had broad support) and a perception (also supported by scientific arguments) that our forests are being pushed too hard – that are amongst the top issues that have generated so much contention about forest practices in NS and that the Independent Review is being asked review?

Prof. Duinker is a key player in forestry in Nova Scotia and his perspectives should be part of the mix that the Independent Review receives. However, to some, his prominent role in the mechanics of the review process detracts from the appearance, if not the operation, of a fully independent, impartial review, and is unsettling. (I have made these views known to Prof. Lahey.)

Perhaps appointment of an additional expert from Nova Scotia e.g. providing indigenous perspectives or expertise in natural history/biodiversity conservation, but without significant connections to DNR and the forest industry, could provide more balance without disrupting the process as it has developed to date. I do wonder about the lack of any women or any Mi’kmaq amongst the advisors.

I also wonder about the limited advertising of opportunities for input and limited venues for public input but perhaps that will change in Phase II, coming up shortly.

On the more positive side, the advisers include some very appropriate people with few or no potential conflicts of interest and as Dale says it is headed up by Bill Lahey, who has a good track record in relation to EGSPA and the Independent Aquaculture Regulatory Review for Nova Scotia. (Earlier I cited the Liberal government’s appointment of Bill Lahey to head up the review as evidence they want it to be credible).

So like Dale Smith, in spite of my concerns, I still have some reason to remain hopeful that the review will lead to some good outcomes.

shopify analytics ecommerce

This entry was posted in Independent Review, Letters&Editorials. Bookmark the permalink.