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Gunns capitulates to misinformation and bullying

By Mark Poynter - posted Friday, 24 September 2010


In the keynote address to the Forestworks industry conference in Melbourne in early September, the new CEO of Gunns Ltd, Greg L'Estrange, announced that Australia's largest timber company would move away from harvesting native forests and divest its hardwood sawmilling assets. To many in the audience, this wasn't particularly surprising given that Gunns had already sold off its freehold native forests - around 30,000 hectares of largely harvested and regenerating Tasmanian forest bought by a philanthropist to create a private conservation preserve!

Choosing his words carefully, L'Estrange professed that after a long career in the timber industry he was "…. a believer in the science of forestry. We have many outstanding contributors to the field, who lead the world in the sustainable management of natural forest areas." But he acknowledged that the timber industry and the environmental movement were "pitted in a fierce battle for the support of the Australian people, who in turn balance the political debate", and asserted that "we have lost the public debate and the support of the broader community".

Regarding the debate, he went on to say that "the industry has been out-thought and out-played, with the ENGO's [environmental non-government organisations] using three key leverage points: public emotion, multi-level government involvement; and certification - market action. Whilst the industry has maintained a stance that science will prevail ……"

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Few in the forestry sector would disagree with the broad thrust of this summation, but most are troubled by its inference that the environmental movement has been "successful" while the industry has "failed". While such labels infer a fair debate, the ENGO's have in reality run deceitful campaigns that have misrepresented the scale and extent of timber production while either ignoring or skewing the science without regard for the implications; while the forestry sector has, for the most part, defended itself using facts, statistics and science.

The ENGO "success" has been substantially assisted by elements of the city-based media which have virtually promoted their cause almost without question. In the mainland capitals, broadsheet daily newspapers have consistently reported the forests debate from the green perspective. While at the national level, the ABC has been overly reliant on ENGO views for their reportage of forestry issues - programs such as Four Corners' "Lords of the Forests" and Australian Story's "Something in the Water" come immediately to mind. Both were subsequently discredited, but not before they had heavily influenced community sentiment.      

The forestry sector is inclined to beat itself up over its inability to get fair media treatment. However, it is up against wealthy, professional corporations whose very existence relies on creating environmental conflict specifically to inhibit resource-use industries. They also have a far simpler and more marketable message. The visual and moral imagery of "saving" beautiful forests from the grim - albeit temporary - devastation of logging, appeals to both the media's need for sensationalism and it's craving to be a popularly acclaimed agent for public good.

Counteracting this is almost impossible in a modern media designed for the superficial and simplistic rather than the complex and scientific. The city-based media which reaches the majority of the population has rarely given sufficient time or space to the forestry sector's views and has at times further blunted their effectiveness by applying more rigorous editorial standards.

That unscientific and unprincipled ENGO campaigns have helped to push our timber industry out of native forests is hardly something that Australian society should be proud of given that native hardwood production is a small-scale, renewable activity posing a negligible environmental threat. Nevertheless, celebrations greet each sawmill closure betraying a disconnected community that has lost perspective to such an extent that urban myths are unquestionably accepted as absolute truths, while rural realities are dismissed as self-serving myths.

With regard to its native forest operations, Gunns has never acted illegally or corruptly. Yet ENGOs have routinely accused it of doing so, despite the reality that the company's operations in Tasmania's public forests (which receive almost all the scrutiny) are undertaken in accordance with a Parliamentary Act, are regulated by a forest practices authority, and controlled by a government agency, Forestry Tasmania, which decides where and how logging is undertaken.

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Gunns has every right to move away from native forests, and it is not too hard to be sympathetic to such a move given the extent to which the company and its reputation have been vilified over the past decade. However, the company's prosecution of this change of direction so soon after acquiring substantial additions to its native hardwood sector in Victoria and Western Australia raises some questions.

While L'Estrange articulated a view of Gunns coming to a pragmatic realisation that there was no future except as a plantations producer, he admitted that "Our customers, shareholders, employees, contractors and other stakeholders have given us a clear message" However, the manner in which former Gunns' CEO, John Gay, was forced out by corporate bullying orchestrated by self-styled anti-forestry crusader, Geoffrey Cousins, suggests that this message was foisted upon the company rather than arrived at after considered thought.

In an interview on ABC's Lateline program in June, Cousins was quite forthright in explaining how he and the Wilderness Society had "put pressure on the financiers of the company ..... we put pressure on the customers ..... we put pressure on the shareholders, finally" For their part, the Wilderness Society's annual review outlined how it had pressured a company being courted by Gunns as a financial partner in its planned Tasmanian pulp mill:

In June 2009, our supporters contacted Swedish company Södra stating our concerns about their possible support for the mill. This was a great success and an example of the kind of campaigning at which the Wilderness Society excels...We will continue to make sure that any potential financiers of a Tamar Valley pulp mill understand the devastating effects it will have on our native forests, oceans and our fragile climate.

In the USA, the practice of targeting stakeholders to undermine and discredit companies is termed "brand-mailing". It could be argued that brand-mailing is justifiable where Western corporations are complicit in serious environmental degradation or human rights transgressions in developing countries - but is it appropriate for already very highly regulated activities occurring in developed country? Perhaps - if it accurately reflects real problems rather than just expressing ideological opposition.

However, those engaged in brand-mailing Gunns are largely ideologically opposed to Tasmanian forestry and typically portray it as something very different to what it actually is. Take the Rainforest Action Network's March 2006 Tasmanian forests campaign, conducted at the behest of Australian activists. It orchestrated protests at various Australian embassies, including in Japan and the UK. During the campaign, RAN spokesman, David Lee, ranted that "everything about the situation on the ground in Tasmania defies belief for anyone who respects democracy and the rule of law" and that "Gunns is trashing a global treasure and ... turning paradise into a toxic Hell on Earth in the process"

Clearly, this is an outrageous misrepresentation, particularly given that around 75% of Tasmania's publicly-owned forests are contained either in conservation reserves where timber production is not permitted, or are unsuited to logging. This includes 80 - 90% of the state's old growth forests.

Nevertheless, several speakers at the Forestworks conference asserted that there is now little point in Australia's forestry sector looking back at how it has reached this point - it must simply accept what it has been dealt and move on. Greg L'Estrange also articulated the importance of moving forward: "The opportunity is there to work with ENGOs to establish a sustainable framework that will move us from CONFLICT to RESOLUTION and PROMOTION. Through this inclusive approach, we will find joint solutions to age-old conflicts and move beyond to a real sustainable forest industry."

These may be grand and worthy words, but they ignore history and reflect naivety about the ENGOs. Unfortunately, failing to respect the lessons of history can damn you to repeat past mistakes.

In the 30-year history of Australia's so-called "forest wars" there has never been a successful negotiated resolution of native forest logging, that is, unless ending the conflict simply by closing the industry is considered as a joint solution. In her book, The Forest Wars, anti-logging academic, Judith Ajani, pointed to SE Queensland as the only example of a successful Australian forest policy essentially because the State government was able to engineer a phased closure of the native timber industry that was acceptable to the ENGOs.

Real attempts at negotiated resolutions based on a lasting compromise between the ENGO's demand to end native timber production and the community's ongoing demand for hardwood, have always failed because the ENGOs simply re-set their sights and start campaigning again. Accordingly, ENGO campaigns against the WA jarrah industry continue despite the government cutting the allowable sawlog harvest by 60% in 2003; against the NSW cypress pine industry despite an 80% industry cut-back in 2005; and against the Victorian native hardwood industry despite a 30% cut-back in 2002 and a further substantial loss of future timber volume since then by the creation of around 200,000 hectares of new national parks and reserves.       

In reality, the ENGOs are addicted to forest conflict and it is not too hard to understand why. Firstly, the formal policies of the major ENGOs - in particular, the Wilderness Society, and the Australian Conservation Foundation - call for the total or very near total closure of the native timber industry. Secondly, 30-years of conflict have created an ENGO support base that is arguably even more fanatical than the career activists who represent them, who at least get some exposure to the complexities of the forests conflict. Any hint of compromise on their part threatens to split their radical supporter base, as is currently the case in Tasmania where behind-the-scenes negotiations are being held into the future of the state's forestry sector.

Thirdly, the ENGOs need conflict to attract donations and maintain membership. The forests conflict provides arguably the easiest and most cost-effective platform for generating the public angst and emotion necessary to generate financial support.

Lastly, the ENGOs have no tangible stake in the forests debate. Whereas the timber industry is beholden to State government resource allocations and has an infrastructure investment which affects considerations of compromise, the ENGOs have no need to compromise on their ultimate aim. It is a tremendous leap of faith to expect them to forever support a negotiated resolution which allows an on-going timber industry, except perhaps one of a tiny cottage scale which harvests just a handful of trees each year for craftsmen and artisans.

Unlike the average native timber sawmiller, Gunns are a huge corporation with diverse forestry interests principally in hardwood pulp and woodchip plantations, but also including a softwood plantation and processing sector. While it is possible for them to end their own forests conflict by transferring their focus to being a plantations-based producer, this is simply not an option for most of the rest of the industry. Few hardwood plantations are being grown for or are old enough for sawn timber production, and even if there was, they would be incapable of supplying the same quality of timber obtainable from native forests.

Australia's forestry sector has a long history of shooting itself in the foot. Inherent competitiveness between industry sub-sectors has rarely served a greater good. Past examples include the self-interested calls of leading figures in the softwood sector for an end to native forest logging to remove product competition; and the aggressive expansion of MIS plantations which, although not without benefits, have partially fractured the forestry sector's traditional rural support base. Gunns' pursuit of its own corporate strategy and the likely collateral damage to the broader forestry sector may in hindsight serve as another unfortunate example of the industry's self-destructive tendencies.

Undoubtedly, Gunns' primary motivation is to build its planned Tasmanian pulp mill which needs both social acceptance and a financial partner. Whether exiting from native forests can help the company achieve this is somewhat problematic given the depth to which ENGO campaigns have poisoned the company's reputation, the reality that plantations and their management are an emerging ‘green' battlefield, and the strength of implacable local opposition to the pulp mill.

In trying to make itself a winner Gunns has risked making everyone a loser given that its exit from native forests has given unwarranted legitimacy to ENGO claims about native forest logging; while its move to being only a plantations producer adds to the false perception that the whole hardwood industry can simply transfer to plantations. In Victoria, the Greens have already signalled their intention to campaign on this platform prior to November's State election.

Even worse is that Gunns have made their move at a time when the Australian Greens have assumed hitherto unprecedented political power on a campaign platform which includes a virtual end to Australia's production of native forest timbers. Now, with no obvious processor for a large slice of the available native sawlog harvest in Tasmania, there is heightened political pressure to re-badge substantial areas of State forest as conservation reserves, with the possibility of further State forest losses in Victoria and WA to appease the Greens' agenda.

This threatens the future of the native hardwood industry with serious flow-on implications for both rural and urban Australia given that, apart from those directly involved in the harvesting and primary processing of native timbers, there are secondary wood processors and timber merchants comprised of a further 10,000 small to medium-sized businesses which employ around 80,000 Australians.

If the current trajectory of Australia's native hardwood sector continues, it won't be long before we will produce nothing from our natural forests.  If this occurs, it will be a sad indictment of the environmental morality of a country which has the world's fifth highest per capita area of forest cover, and is amongst the world's top five per capita consumers of wood and paper products.

Given that timber production is already largely confined to only about half of the just 7% of Australia's native forests which are classed as multiple-use State forests, it will also serve as a damning example of the damage caused by the uncompromising addiction of Australia's ENGO's to maintaining conflict even in the face of diminishing environmental threat.

In the aftermath of Gunns' announced exit from native forests, Victorian forest activist, Jill Redwood, praised the company for making "a moral decision". However, this is hardly an apt description for a forced shift in direction which, by damaging Australia's highly evolved domestic industry, will encourage more importation of tropical timbers from developing countries with weak environmental controls where illegal and unsustainable forest exploitation is rife.

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About the Author

Mark Poynter is a professional forester with 30 years experience. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Foresters of Australia and acts for it in a voluntary capcity as a media spokesperson. His book Saving Australia's Forests and its Implications was published in 2007.

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