Province promises N.B. forest report by April after seven years of missed deadlines

Tom MacFarlane, the deputy minister at the Department of Natural Resources and Energy Development, acknowledged his department missed several of its own deadlines for the report.  (Jacques Poitras/CBC - image credit)
Tom MacFarlane, the deputy minister at the Department of Natural Resources and Energy Development, acknowledged his department missed several of its own deadlines for the report. (Jacques Poitras/CBC - image credit)

A report on the state of the province's forests that was first promised almost seven years ago should finally be public before April 1, a committee of the legislature was told Wednesday.

Tom MacFarlane, the deputy minister of natural resources and energy development, acknowledged that his department has missed several deadlines it gave itself, starting in June 2016, to finish and publish the report.

He made the new commitment after Green Leader David Coon hammered the department for repeatedly promising the report and then not delivering it.

"Delay after delay after delay after delay," Coon said during a meeting of the legislature's public accounts committee.

"The question is, Mr. MacFarlane, what is it you don't want the members of the public and this legislature to know about the state of our forest?"

No annual plan

Earlier in the morning, Coon also forced MacFarlane to admit that the department had not published an annual plan listing its objectives — a plan required under provincial law to be posted on the department's website.

"I'm not aware as to why we haven't published an annual plan," MacFarlane said.

He said the department has been using a mandate letter from Premier Blaine Higgs as a guide — though he didn't realize that mandate letters are kept confidential by the current government.

"I guess I thought they are made public centrally and I'm told they are not public," he said. "But we have not produced an annual plan."

The province's Accountability and Continuous Improvement Act requires departments to publish annual plans laying out their objectives for each fiscal year.

That allows the department, MLAs and the public to compare the plan's objectives to results laid out in a subsequent annual report.

Why plan is needed

With a report but no plan, Coon said, "it's extremely difficult for us to do our work in holding the department accountable in how it uses tax dollars if we don't know what those goals and objectives in the plan are."

The act says departments "shall" prepare an annual plan to "set out the goals and objectives" during a given year and establish "a strategic direction," then "identify objective performance measures" for those goals.

It also says the minister for the department "shall make the annual plan public by publishing it on the department's website" within three months of the start of the fiscal year.

Jacques Poitras/CBC
Jacques Poitras/CBC

On the state of the province report, Coon said the last one was in 2008 and pointed out the auditor general recommended in 2015 that the department issue new versions more frequently to report on how forests are being managed for ecological sustainability.

Coon said the department committed to a new report by June 2016, told him in 2017 it was "coming soon," assured him in 2019 that it would be tabled in the legislature in 2020, and in 2021 told him it would be ready that summer.

He said there was then another promise it would be done in 2022.

"Certainly there's been a number of things that have impacted our ability to deliver that report," MacFarlane said.

"I can promise you that that report is in draft form right now and we are anticipating to get that out this fiscal year."

Department has other priorities

He blamed "limited staff" for the delay and a focus on other more important programs.

"I can apologize for missing our targets and notions of the past, but certainly we've been prioritizing a lot of our initiatives," he said.

"It's limited resources that we have, and we try to make sure that we're focused on the items that require the highest priority."

Assistant deputy minister Chris Ward added that the raw data that would be used in a state of the forest report is available on the department's online open data portal.

"There's no hiding data," Ward said. "For those that are interested in data, it's online."

The discussion with Coon over missed deadlines is the latest in a series of exchanges between the Green leader and the department.

In 2020 he chided MacFarlane for the department for not having produced an emissions-reduction strategy three years after the release of the province's climate change plan.

During that session, department officials also said New Brunswick would miss its goal of having 2,500 electric vehicles on the province's roads by the end of 2020. There were only 429 at the end of 2019.

On Wednesday, MacFarlane was able to report that the province is on track to meet its next EV target of 20,000 by 2030.

He said supply chains were a problem until last fall but are showing signs of improvement now, with more electric vehicles available for sale now and federal and provincial rebate programs helping to spur sales.

"We're seeing our numbers increase significantly so we're very hopeful that holds," he said.