Director says forest company audit flawed

Plans to appeal investigation into Western Forest Products

A Strathcona Regional District director will appeal the results of an investigation into Western Forest Products and the group that advises the company.

Area A Director Gerald Whalley said an investigation, triggered when Whalley appealed the clean audit findings of Western Forest Products, was not done properly.

“Because this report is based on very shallow investigating and because I believe that many of its conclusions are false, I have appealed this report,” Whalley told the regional district board at its Feb. 25 meeting. “This is my final recourse available to me through this whole certification process.”

Whalley launched his appeal following his eviction from a Sept. 22 meeting of the Mid Island Forestry Lands Advisory Group (MIFLAG), which, as part of Western Forest Products’ certification, advises the company on sustainable forest management and includes representatives from the regional district, the city, School District 72, Western Forest Products, and other stakeholders.

Whalley said he angered the foresters by appealing Western’s clean audit after an incident at a previous meeting, on July 28. Whalley said a motion to allow Western to increase its allowable use of herbicides in the Sayward Valley by three times was declared carried following a vote of six in favour and four opposed.

Whalley contests that it should have failed according to MIFLAG’s terms of reference which states that, “decisions which must be made by MIFLAG are done by consensus building techniques where consensus is deemed to be ‘no strong opposition.”

Whalley said the group’s actions caused him to question the audit and the foresters grew angry and told him to leave. Following that meeting, Jeff Ternan, operations manager for Western, wrote to the Strathcona Regional District relaying that “in light of recent events, Gerald Whalley is no longer welcome to participate in, or attend any further MIFLAG meetings or functions.”

The investigation, conducted by SAI Global and triggered by Whalley’s appeal, found that all parties of MIFLAG should have been consulted on Whalley’s removal, but the report added that “whether or not the company may remove a member from the MIFLAG remains open” because it’s not addressed in the group’s terms of reference.

Whalley has clashed with Western, alleging the forestry company manipulates the minutes of the MIFLAG meetings to suit its needs.

Whalley said MIFLAG failed to record a sub-committee’s recommendation that the existing herbicide agreement remain, after Western indicated it wanted to increase its allowable herbicide use three times over.

“The company did not like that recommendation,” Whalley said. “It’s been one year since that recommendation, but it was never disclosed in the minutes. It’s been kept in secret.”

Amy Spencer, director of communications and government relations with Western Forest Products, said Whalley is free to express his beliefs.

“WFP (Western Forest Products) welcomes the SAI feedback and respects all members’ opinions and rights to complain about issues.”

SAI Global’s investigation found no evidence that Western is altering the minutes.

“We have not found evidence in the documentation reviewed and through the interviews that locally developed indicators were deleted arbitrarily, that new indicators were developed without the MIFLAG’s consent,” reads the report.

But Whalley said the investigation only took into account the existing minutes of the MIFLAG meetings and only involved interviews with himself and two Western Forest Products employees. The report from SAI Global says the investigation consisted of the review of MIFLAG’s terms of reference, minutes from MIFLAG meetings in 2014 and 2015, version four of a strategic management plan, 2013 and 2014 indicator, or target, reports, and MIFLAG’s 2014 annual report.

“The findings are as disappointing as they were predictable,” Whalley said. “The investigator’s position was that if it’s not in the minutes, it didn’t happen. The conclusions typically state no evidence was found to support my complaints – of course. The problem with using those minutes as the only real evidence is that Western creates those minutes themselves, they control the minutes and of course they don’t have anything in the minutes they don’t want recorded.”

Whalley said he asked the investigator to interview other members of MIFLAG to corroborate his complaints but the investigator was “not interested.”

Spencer, meanwhile, said Western Forest Products is in the process of arranging a meeting with Whalley and the regional district to go over the results of the investigation, as well as eight recommendations put forward by the investigator.

Those recommendations include completing minutes from the July and September MIFLAG meetings, reviewing the public participation requirements of MIFLAG, consider incorporating a code of ethics for members, and having the subcommittee on herbicides report its recommendations in a timely manner.

Spencer said after meeting with Whalley and regional district, Western intends to make a presentation to MIFLAG outlining the results of the SAI investigation and Western’s own internal review. MIFLAG has suspended all meetings since September when Whalley was told to leave.

“We are in the process of arranging the meetings to occur this month,” Spencer said. “We see this as an opportunity to do a reset and ensure it is time well spent for all of those participating. Our intent is to discuss the results, overall membership, and Strathcona Regional District’s representation with the groups. Our desire is to ensure there is opportunity of all members of MIFLAG to be involved as we move forward with a new and more effective process.”