Perils of the profession
The past year has been a wild ride for forestry in New Brunswick – not just for the industry, but for the profession. The dramatic policy shift taking place in this province has occasioned some soul searching, and has spurred debate about the role of the forester in society – an important question in any jurisdiction that has more than a few trees.
Shortly after the New Brunswick government released its new Strategy for Crown Lands Forest Management, back in March, the Association of Registered Professional Foresters of New Brunswick (ARPFNB) sent a letter to then-Premier David Alward, expressing concerns about the lack of transparency and public participation in the policy development process. In the preceding three months the ARPFNB had made repeated requests to meet with the minister or the deputy minister “to seek details on the forest management strategy, offer input, and help the Department engage with citizens.” But scheduled meetings were repeatedly postponed. This group, representing considerable forestry expertise and credibility, was entirely shut out.
The letter, dated April 17, 2014, acknowledged that ARPFNB members hold diverse views on the Crown forest plan, with many supporting the timber-focused approach and many others having “deep concerns about the ecological sustainability” of the new policy. But it said the group exists, in part, “to keep the public informed about important developments in forestry and land management,” and its members are in agreement about the need for public involvement in such decisions.
Don Floyd, the former UNB dean of forestry who serves as president of the ARPFNB, says he wrote another letter to the government right after the Liberals came to power and Denis Landry took over the natural resources portfolio, but as the last days of 2014 ticked by he had not received a reply.
Floyd’s personal view is that the strategy has caused unnecessary controversy by squeezing Crown land for additional wood supply that could have been obtained from private woodlots. He thinks the chances are “infinitesimally small” that the Liberals will try to break contracts promising the industry more Crown fiber, but he would at least like to see the government open up the lines of communication as it grapples with this new reality. In his most recent letter he restated the group’s request for a meeting, and he also spoke of the need for a formal mechanism for consultation, urging the government to re-establish the Minister’s Forest Advisory Committee, which has not met since early 2012.
“The Conservatives waited until everybody’s terms expired and then failed to re-appoint anybody, so they killed it in kind of a back-room deal,” says Floyd. “Now I guess we’re still waiting to give the Liberals a little bit of an opportunity to see if they’re going to do something or not.”
The ARPFNB recently surveyed its members, and found that 75 percent of respondents consider it appropriate for the group to weigh in on important policy matters. But there is a vocal minority. Floyd says he received “a couple of hot letters” from members who opposed the association’s dabbling in government business.
This is the crux of the debate about what it means to be a professional forester. It’s something not well understood by the general public. In the popular media, anyone who works in the woods may be identified as a forester, which is like assuming that everyone who works in a hospital is a doctor. Similarly, the word “professional” is commonly used to refer to anyone who conducts themselves with skill and decorum in their chosen field, be it plumbing, basketball, or, indeed, prostitution.
People who actually have a university degree in forestry (I am not one of them) have staked out their territory by establishing professional associations, but it’s not just an exclusive club based on educational attainment. It’s also more than self-regulation of ethical standards. It’s meant to formalize the strong public interest role associated with the profession.
Vince Zelazny, the ARPFNB’s past president, is a DNR retiree who is teaching part-time at UNB while pursuing a doctorate, and professionalism in forestry is his primary research interest. He certainly believes speaking out on policy matters is a legitimate role for the group. “We’re answerable to the public,” he says. “You don’t become a professional to solely serve the interests of your client or your employer. There’s a special aspect to the professional relationship, there’s an implied social contract there.”
Zelazny says recent trends do not bode well for this social contract. “I fear that we’re on a path to just losing it – losing everything, and that one day forestry will be considered more just a set of techniques than a profession that requires judgement. We’re seeing that with the increasing focus on forest management with just boosting the efficiency of harvests and of regenerating by planting and so on. . . . Maybe that’s saying too much, but I think we’re on a path of losing our privileges if we don’t speak more to the public’s concerns.”
I think Zelazny may be right about this. There’s a certain irony about this relatively new concept of “stakeholder groups” taking root in the realm of forest policy. Consulting with the public on this basis is viewed as highly democratic, yet it reinforces the notion that people speak only for their own interests and no one speaks for the common good. It parallels the decline of political discourse, wherein citizens are now urged to vote based on which party’s platform will produce the best economic outcome for them as individuals (or as “hardworking families,” which is the term preferred by politicians), and no mention is made of principles or public betterment.
If foresters were more assertive about defending the public’s interests, it would probably improve the reputation of the whole industry. Of course, this is tricky because it may mean criticizing fellow members of one’s profession. But being a professional is not all backslapping. It’s not a simple nine-to-five job. It involves lifelong learning, endless debate, and continually working to improve the practices and standards that define the profession.
Doctors used to appear in cigarette advertisements, but obviously they couldn’t get away with that now. In recent years physicians’ professional associations have taken a firm stance on tobacco policy (despite the fact that a few of them are smokers). Some people think doctors should just shut up and keep scribbling prescriptions, but increasingly they are speaking up, as a profession, about environmental issues that affect our health.
Listening to radio coverage of a September rally organized to spur action on pollution from Northern Pulp in Pictou County, N.S., it was fascinating to hear Dr. Dan Reid slamming a fellow physician from the community, former Premier John Hamm, who is chairman of the mill’s board of directors. Dr. Reid said Dr. Hamm’s relationship with the company puts him in contravention of the Canadian Medical Association’s code of ethics.
Yes, this was a former Liberal MLA attacking a high-profile Conservative, but there was some validity to the criticism. Even in retirement, a doctor enjoys social status as a result of his title, and it seems reasonable he should avoid endeavors that conflict with public health. That being said, Dr. Reid’s use of the derogatory term “Chinaman,” in reference to the owner of the mill’s Singapore-based parent company, didn’t reflect terribly well on the profession either. It’s a minefield. Anyone who speaks out as a professional is bound to draw criticism. Complicit silence, however, represents a breach of public trust.
Okay, now I’ll just shut up and mind my own business, which is to offer congratulations to all the Woodlot Owner of the Year (WOOTY) award winners featured in this New Year’s issue of AFR.
They’re a breath of fresh air. DL
Perils of the profession