A new and improved Conservation Officer Service

As anyone who has been reading this blog recently knows, West Coast has major concerns about the government’s recent overhaul of the resource Ministries.  And longer term readers will know that we’ve also been quite upset about the virtual collapse in the enforcement of BC’s environmental laws for some time. 

So it’s nice to find that one silver lining to last week’s exercise in restructuring may be a new and improved Conservation Officer Service (COS) – with a new emphasis on charging polluters. 

So what’s the cabinet shuffle got to do with enforcement?

COSLogo.jpgThe original government press release announcing the re-organization mentions enforcement only in passing, stating that the Ministry of Environment will continue to be responsible for “Conservation and resource management enforcement”.   Further down the press release the Ministry of Natural Resource Operations is identified as responsible for “Resource management compliance”. 

This is a curious division.  The Ministry of Environment has always seen compliance (getting people to comply with the law) and enforcement (punishing them for not doing so) as going hand-in-glove (as, indeed, they do to a certain extent). 

But apparently this is not just a drafting error in the press release.  The government’s Q&A document sent to ministry staff signals that there has been an intentional decision for the Conservation Officer Service to focus on enforcement, not compliance:

14. Who will be doing compliance with the focus now being enforcement;

... Our objective will be to more closely integrate compliance activities into general operational functions such as authorizations.  This shift will ensure a larger pool of resources is available to undertake enforcement activities such as intelligence gathering and interdiction. 

… The integration of compliance and enforcement functions across the natural resource sector has been ongoing for the past few years, with an overarching mission being the establishment of a professional Tier 2 law enforcement and compliance agency. Achieving this will take time and a concentrated focus on directing staff resources to high priority concerns.  The enhanced pool of resources will retain the cultures of the agencies while also providing greater opportunities for career advancement. 

West Coast believes that there are a few good-news points in here.  First, by separating the enforcement function from the compliance function, the COS can now focus on detecting and dealing with behaviour that warrants enforcement action.  Being in the field focussed on enforcement is exactly where the COS should be. 

Second, the government almost seems to recognize that that the Conservation Officer Service should be a “professional … law enforcement … agency” (albeit only a Tier 2 one, whatever that means – anyone know?). 

Unfortunately, the powers-that-be haven’t quite got over the Ministry’s traditional focus on compliance, so they insist on slipping in the words “and compliance” after the word “enforcement”.  If you google (in quotes) “law enforcement and compliance agency” you get “no results”.  Contrast that with “law enforcement agency” (in quotes) which yields 1,260,000 results.  C’mon BC government – admitting that the Conservation Officer Service is a law enforcement agency is not going to go to their head.  Like any law enforcement officer, a Conservation Officer can decide to let someone off with a warning instead of writing a ticket and still be a real “law enforcement officer.”

Nonetheless, this almost affirmation of the professional law enforcement potential of the COS is a far cry from the government’s position in 2005 when an internal memo told the Conservation Officers to “create a more business oriented presence with respect to the proposed commercial/industrial CO unit, through such means as limiting the use of firearms, power of arrest, uniforms and the use of force.”

And the third piece of good news is the recognition that enforcement requires greater resources than has been brought to bear to date.  In addition to freeing up resources by shifting Conservation Officers away from compliance work, last Monday’s cabinet shuffle saw the staff of the “Special Investigation Unit of the Compliance and Enforcement Branch of the Ministry of Forests and Range” being transferred to the Ministry of Environment – apparently to complement the COS staff.  These are not your every-day compliance officers.  According to the Ministry of Forests and Range Policy Manual - Resource Management:

[Special Investigations Unit (SIU)] staff will focus on high impact contraventions or offences that are beyond a district C&E program’s ability to manage due to their complexity, high profile, cross-district or regional nature, inter-agency requirements, or greater public interest. … SIU staff may conduct internal investigations of those Ministry staff performing a C&E function as deemed appropriate by the RCL and or the Branch Director.

So the Ministry of Environment is apparently some pretty sophisticated compliance and enforcement staff from the Ministry of Forests and Range, although the FAQ document emphasizes that these staff will work with, but are not becoming, Conservation Officers. 

We’ve even heard a second or third hand rumour that the government is considering making the Conservation Officer Service more arms-length from the Ministry, allowing them greater latitude to investigate and enforce the laws without ministry interference.  But that’s just rumour at this point. 

So will this help?

West Coast is ecstatic to see the government finally taking some serious steps on environmental enforcement – measures consistent with our past recommendations.  We hope and expect that if the COS is given the power to act as a law enforcement agency, this will have a positive impact on declining levels of environmental enforcement. 

That being said, we do not believe that the drop in enforcement has only been the result of the compliance-oriented culture in the COS and a lack of resources.  Indeed, starting in 2005 the BC government began actually restoring much of the COS’s funding, but without much to show for it.  In addition to these factors, we believe that the collapse in enforcement has been caused by:

  • Cuts to non-COS field, scientific and administrative staff who support the COS’s work;
  • New environmental laws that are inherently more difficult to enforce than the laws they replaced.  Some of these laws are just vague to the point of being unenforceable, while others require base-line data, extensive field work and/or scientific expertise to detect violations and enforce the law.  (See our 2007 report, No Response, for a more detailed discussion of these problems). 

But while the cabinet shuffle will not by itself solve these serious problems, it may (we hope) result in a new and improved Conservation Officer Service, serious about enforcing the province’s environmental laws. 

Best of luck Conservation Officers!  Go and catch us some polluters!

Andrewblogphoto.jpgBy Andrew Gage, Staff Lawyer