This case study examines the role of the Forest Practices Board, an independent public watchdog in the forest sector of British Columbia. British Columbia is Canada’s most forest-dependent province with 62% of the province covered in forest and a forest industry that generates $1.2 billion revenue p.a. and directly employs 4.4% of the province’s workforce. The BC forest industry came to international attention during the so-called ‘war in the woods’ in the 1980s/90s, when there was high profile protest over the damage to BC’s unique fauna and flora caused by a relatively unregulated industry. Confrontation between the government and environmentalists peaked in 1993, when the arrest of some 900 protesters provoked adverse publicity both domestically and internationally. The government responded in 1995 by passing the Forest Practices Code and establishing a Forest Practices Board (FPB) to provide an independent 3rd party view of (i) the compliance of licensees with the Code; (ii) the efficacy of the Code; and (iii) Government administration of the Code.
The FPB carries out audits of companies, of the government agency responsible for developing and auctioning timber sales licences, and of the government’s compliance and enforcement branch. In addition to random audits, the FPB carries out thematic audits, investigates complaints and carries out special investigations of issues of general concern. The independence of the FPB is assured by legislation and it reports directly to the public without interference or vetting. It receives its funding from the Treasury to avoid any undue sectoral influence and its eight members are appointed by Cabinet, representing a broad spectrum of forestry and environmental experience.
With no power to apply sanctions and a limited mandate to comment on policy, some people consider the FPB to be largely irrelevant to the big issues of improving the policy framework for sustainable forest management and land use planning. These are related in particular to the continuing degradation of the British Columbian landscape, and potential loss of a number of highly endangered species, in spite of a forest industry that achieves 94% compliance with the law. Others point to the constructive role played by the FPB in working with auditees, where it emphasises solutions rather than assigning blame.
Furthermore, its special investigations (e.g. on endangered species) are praised for providing a neutral forum for the discussion of contentious issues. In 2004, in a spirit of deregulation, the Forest Practices Code was replaced by the results-based Forest and Range Practices Act (FRPA). The FPB was retained though its role became more difficult as the FRPA has no clear indicators against which to audit. Nevertheless, the shift from the Code to the FRPA has
opened the way for the FPB to push its mandate and comment more widely on policy, as it talks to the expected ‘results’ rather than simply auditing compliance to prescriptions. Its independence and related objectivity are key factors in explaining the important role the FPB plays alongside other, less impartial, actors in assuring verification in the BC forest sector.