The Alward government is being accused of muzzling its scientists and ignoring their advice in moving ahead with a new Crown lands policy that allows for a 21 per cent increase in cutting softwood in public forests.
Green party Leader David Coon and a former wildlife biologist with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) are raising the concerns as the debate about the new policy continues to rage more than a week after it was unveiled.
The new policy sees the forest areas that are off-limits to industrial cutting — including watercourse buffers, deer wintering areas, and old growth forest — reduced to 23 per cent of the Crown forest, down from 28 per cent.
Coon told CBC's weekly political panel that nothing in science has changed to support such a shift in policy.
"What's changed is the Alward government has decided to ignore that science, muzzle their scientists," said Coon.
"Have you heard a single biologist or ecologist or forester from DNR address this issue?"
Coon noted that scientists from outside government are "lining up, saying this is a big problem.
"And we have not heard one thing from a public servant who is a biologist or an ecologist or a forester," said Coon.
"It just says to me we need better whistleblower protection so those folks can feel like they are not going to lose their jobs if they speak the truth to the public whom they serve."
Rod Cumberland, who is a recently retired deer biologist with Natural Resources, released an open letter to the media this week raising questions about DNR scientists being fearful to speak out.
Cumberland asks where the department's foresters, fish and wildlife biologists and other staff are in the debate.
"I'll tell you where they are," said Cumberland. "They are sitting in their offices knowing that the last few colleagues to speak their professional opinions have been removed from their current posts.
"There are examples within and outside the walls of DNR that bear testimony to the fact that if you don't toe the government line, your employment prospects can change overnight.
"Why isn't the biggest issue surrounding this entire forestry debate more focused on the lack of democracy and the loss of freedom through tyranny?" Cumberland asked.
Representing the government on the political panel, Energy Minister Craig Leonard dismissed the notion that government scientists are muzzled or afraid to speak out on the issue.
'When I get briefed by DNR, they're saying we're within that range.' - Craig Leonard, Energy Minister
"When I get briefed by DNR, they're saying we're within that range," said Leonard.
Coon responded that a ministerial briefing is not the same thing as scientists speaking to the public.
"You've got staff doing a political briefing for a minister so he can do a talk show, a round table, so he doesn't get slayed by the others on the panel and sounds like he knows what he's talking about," said Coon.
"C'mon, give me a break. That's not science."
Leonard concedes "the science hasn't changed.
"But the reality is every one of those reports that discussed the science has different areas where you can go in terms of conservation forest.
"There have been reports that come out and said conservation forest, set it at 20 per cent. Others have come and said 31 per cent," he said.
"Obviously the range is there. So it's a matter of what balance are you going to strike," said Leonard.
"We feel that this plan strikes that balance. When I personally speak to DNR, that's exactly what I'm being told."
'They just made this up.' - David Coon, Green Party leader
Coon, who is a former executive director of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick and has been deeply involved in Crown land management and forestry issues over the years, says he reviewed all the old reports on wood allocation in search of the most extreme scenarios for increasing the annual allowable cut.
"Nothing gave me a more than four or five per cent increase in annual allowable cut in the short term," said Coon. "Four or five per cent. Not 21 per cent.
"They just made this up," said Coon.
Leonard said DNR has its own models that determined a 21 per cent increase in the annual tree harvest is acceptable.
"They're basically taking these reports that have been done and feeding that information in," said Leonard. "What I'm being told is the model that we have produces a range that's acceptable for what our outcomes are."